Friday, April 26, 2013

Article: For raped Peace Corps volunteers, little choice

From Irin Carmon at 


For raped Peace Corps volunteers, little choice
Peace Corp volunteer tells Salon about being violated twice and denied abortion coverage, due to politics (UPDATE)
Update, 7:30 p.m.: A Peace Corps spokesperson responds:

“The safety and security of Peace Corps Volunteers is our highest priority. Over the past few years, we’ve put in place a number of new, significant practices and safeguards to reduce the risks for Volunteers and ensure victims of crime receive compassionate and effective support.

The Peace Corps supports Senator Lautenberg’s bill and the President’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget, which extends the same rights and protections to female Peace Corps Volunteers as many of their federal colleagues by applying exceptions on abortion restrictions as outlined in the Hyde Amendment.”
Original post:

As Mary Kate Shannon waited to find out if she was pregnant after being raped for the second time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru, the healthcare coordinator told her her options were limited. “If I were pregnant, the Peace Corps could not pay for the abortion due to some kind of federal law,” Shannon recalled in an interview with Salon. They would, however, pay for parenting classes.

“I felt betrayed,” Shannon said. “I felt like it was a decision that was going to be made for me. I wasn’t in a place financially where I felt like I could pay for it.”

The pregnancy test came back negative, but the experience led Shannon to support the newly introduced Peace Corps Equity Act, which would extend insurance coverage for Peace Corps volunteers for abortions in instances of rape.  ”The Peace Corps is the only government agency that doesn’t have [insurance coverage of abortion services] for women who become pregnant as a result of rape – it’s a technical fix in that sense,” said Casey Frazee of First Response Action, an advocacy group for Peace Corps volunteers who are survivors of sexual assault.

Women make up about 60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers. It’s difficult to know whether the rate of sexual violence, reported or unreported, is higher for them than in the United States, but their often-isolated circumstances, the perception of young American women as sexually available, and institutional neglect all exacerbated the situation. “Faraway legal systems, magnified aloneness and isolation, being away from family in your greatest hour of need, and the unique form of mental health support we receive because of limited in country resources volunteers receive if they chose to return to service,” were some of the factors Shannon cited in a blog post for First Response Action.

That indifference or victim-blaming had been the culture of the Peace Corps for decades became clear in the testimony before Congress for what would become the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, signed by Obama in 2011. Dr. Karestan Koenen testified that after being raped as a volunteer in Niger, she experienced a series of inadequate or harmful responses, including the staff member at the inspector general’s office who told her, “I am so sick of you girls going over there, drinking, dancing and flirting, and then, if a guy comes on to you, you say you have been raped when you have led them on.”

Carol Marie Clark, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal in the mid-1980s, testified that after she was raped by the program director, the Peace Corps told her to “terminate my pregnancy or terminate my service with the Peace Corps.” She flew to Honolulu and had an abortion, but the Peace Corps “provided no funding for the procedure. Instead, the family of my best friend sent me the money I needed.” When she returned to Nepal, she was raped and beaten by a Nepalese official who held her captive at knife point for hours. Clark cited a 2010 annual volunteer survey that indicated that nearly 40 percent of victims of rape, 44 percent of victims of attempted rape, and nearly 50 percent of victims of sexual assault had decided not to report the crime.

Any legislation expanding access to reproductive services likely grinds to a halt at the door of the House, and the same was true when the House spent its last cycle busily passing showy restrictions on abortion that would die in the Senate. But the single exception so far has been coverage of abortion for raped servicewomen and dependents through the Shaheen Amendment this year, which was included in the National Defense Authorization Act. And the congressional reforms on sexual assault response were broadly bipartisan.

The Peace Corps Equity Act, introduced Thursday by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, would be an incremental policy change, but a potentially doable one that gives Republicans the unappetizing choice between “expand[ing] federal involvement in abortion,” as Americans United for Life president Charmaine Yoest put it (disparagingly) and appearing to be callous to the needs of rape survivors. (Just in time, Todd Akin is borderline threatening a comeback.)

Shannon says that though there’s a ways to go in implementing an efficient and consistent response to raped Peace Corps volunteers, she was the beneficiary of the 2011 legislation, including the fact that she had an official victims’ advocate to see her through the process. But when it came to her potential pregnancy, ”I felt like no one was fighting for me at that point.”

Read more at Follow writer Irin Carmon on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at

Article: Women’s health groups want Peace Corps volunteers to have insurance coverage for abortions

From Lisa Rein at the Washington Post:

If a Peace Corps volunteer is raped and becomes pregnant as a result, she has to pay for an abortion herself, because the federal government refuses to cover the cost.
Yet women on the paid Peace Corps staff, along with other federal employees, federal prisoners, women on Medicaid and Native Americans, have long received insurance coverage for abortions in cases of rape or incest or if their health is in danger. In January, women in the military got the same access.
The ban for Peace Corps volunteers has been in place since 1979, when Congress attached a rider to the agency’s annual appropriation amid other laws restricting federal funding for abortion. But now women’s health groups are pushing to strip it from federal law, hoping public opinion is on their side.
They’re emboldened by recent scrutiny from Congress of sexual assaults in the humanitarian agency and a growing number of Peace Corps volunteers who are speaking openly about their experiences.
Their efforts got a boost this month from the Obama administration, which put language in the proposed 2014 budget that allows federal coverage for abortions for Peace Corps volunteers in cases of rape, incest and when the woman’s health is endangered.
And Thursday, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced a bill supporting the same coverage for volunteers that is offered to other women who get federal health benefits.
“This is really about fixing what feels like an antiquated provision [of law] that’s completely out of sync with the way we treat civil servants,” said Aram Schvey, policy counsel for foreign policy and human rights at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Lautenberg, long an advocate for the Peace Corps and global women’s rights, said in a statement, “It is unacceptable that their own country restricts their access to care.”
Peace Corps spokeswoman Shira Kramer said in a statement that the agency supports a change that “provides female volunteers with the same rights and protections as many of their female colleagues.”
Antiabortion groups have vowed to fight removal of the ban, which they consider an effort by the Obama administration to expand abortion services. Americans United for Life said the Peace Corps is failing to keep volunteers safe.
“Rather than addressing the egregious security concerns that we should all have for these young women who are being sent in dangerous situations, the Obama administration and their allies are using the horrific events in . . . [their] lives to expand federal involvement in abortion,” Charmaine Yoest, the group’s president, said in a statement.
But the issue may prove tricky for lawmakers with antiabortion records. The issue of exceptions for rape and incest in abortion restrictions has become a hypersensitive issue since Missouri’s Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, Todd Akin, told a St. Louis television station last fall that “legitimate rape” victims rarely get pregnant. His comments helped cost him the election. Calls from The Washington Post to five House members and one senator went unreturned.
The Lautenberg bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), author of an amendment to the defense bill the president signed into law in January that repeals a ban on abortion coverage for women in the armed services who are victims of rape or incest. Military insurance had only covered abortions performed to save the woman’s life.
Advocates said they were encouraged by that change, and by passage in 2011 of a law that provides better protections for volunteers who report wrongdoing and provides them better training on how to avoid attacks and sexual assaults.
The Peace Corps has about 8,700 volunteers serving in 77 countries. About 60 percent are women. Every year, on average, 22 volunteers report being the victims of rape or attempted rape, the agency said. From 2000 to 2009, the last year for which statistics are available, more than 1,000 volunteers reported sexual assaults, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes. Experts say the incidence is likely higher.
Corps volunteer Carol Clark told a congressional panel in 2011 that she became pregnant after being raped by a Peace Corps employee during her tour of Nepal in 1984, and an agency official said she had to make a choice: Get an abortion or quit her service. But the agency would not pay for the abortion.
“It was just matter of fact, the way he said it,” Clark, now 51 and a teacher in North Carolina, said in an interview. A friend’s parents paid for the procedure, she said.
Mary Kate Shannon, 27, was raped twice during her 18-month tour in Peru, which ended four months ago. The first attack, in October 2011, was by a taxi driver who was convicted and sent to prison.
A year later she was attacked while on vacation with a Peruvian man who she said raped her in a youth hostel. The Peace Corps flew her back to Washington for counseling.
The agency’s international health coordinator told her the Peace Corps could not pay for an abortion if it turned out she was pregnant. It would, however, pay for parenting classes, Shannon said she was told.
“I kept saying, ‘But it was rape, I was raped,’ ” Shannon recounted in an interview.
Shannon said the woman told her to pay for the procedure from her $5,000 readjustment allowance.
“Thankfully, the pregnancy test was negative,” she said. “But I felt angry and so betrayed by what they told me.”
Kramer called the safety and security of volunteers “our highest priority” and cited new safeguards to reduce the risk of violence. But she said the issue “is about equal rights for our female volunteers.”
One of the reasons the rider was able to exempt volunteers from coverage provided to other federal employees is that volunteers technically are not federal workers, and not covered by the federal health plan.

Read the entire article here and join the discussion on their website.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Peace Corps Town Hall Meeting Tomorrow 4/2

Peace Corps is hosting a Town Hall meeting tomorrow from 6-7:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Email your questions to! Peace Corps is sorting questions and we have been told they will pay attention to questions where they have noticed a theme. This is your chance to ask what you would like to ask of the Acting Peace Corps Director.

From Peace Corps:

Acting Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet (Western Samoa, 1981-83) will be hosting a Town Hall for RPCVs on April 2, 2013, from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. EDT.  She will discuss and answer questions about important topics identified by RPCVs around the country.  RPCVs should submit their topics and questions – along with their name, country and dates of service – in advance to (please refer to “Town Hall Question” in the subject line) or tweet them at @PeaceCorps with the hashtag #PCtownhall.

RPCVs around the world are encouraged to join via our live-stream broadcast at the URL here:

RPCVs in the Washington area are welcome to attend in person at Shriver Hall, Peace Corps Headquarters, 1111 20th Street NW, Washington, D.C., although seating is limited.  You can sign up to attend the event in person or request an email reminder of the live-stream event by registering to participate.

Hessler-Radelet will also be joined by new NPCA Director Glenn Blumhorst (Guatemala, 1988-91).  

We hope you will participate and join the conversation.


Office of Third Goal and Returned Volunteer Services