After an ABC News report about the murder of a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, members of Congress have introduced a bill designed to protect whistleblowers and improve the treatment of victims of violence and sexual assault.
The Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 is named for 24-year-old Kate Puzey, who was murdered in Benin in 2009 after telling superiors she believed a fellow Peace Corps employee was molesting female students. In an investigation that aired on "20/20," ABC News told the story of Kate's murder and examined what critics say has been a "blame-the-victim" culture within the Peace Corps when volunteers are assaulted or attempt to report problems.
"It's been a long journey since that devastating day that we heard Kate had been murdered," said Lois Puzey of Cumming, Ga., Kate's mother. "The effort of so many people, including ABC News, has got us to the point where we hope Kate will be honored and other Peace Corps volunteers will be able to serve safely."
Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) introduced the bill with a Capitol Hill press conference Thursday. "The time has come to stand up and protect America's angels abroad", said Poe. "Peace Corps volunteers are ambassadors of the United States who spend their lives helping others who are less fortunate all over the world. These precious people are dedicated to taking care of others; now it is time to make sure that they are taken care of."
The bill would require the Peace Corps to improve the training of volunteers to reduce sexual assault risk, would protect whistleblowers, and would require the Peace Corps to hire victims' advocates for each region the agency serves.
"I am delighted with the content of the bill," said former Peace Corps volunteer Karestan Koenen, who was raped while serving in Niger in 1991. "Twenty years ago, the Peace Corps denied me the opportunity of seeking justice against my attacker. This bill feels like justice." Koenen said she felt that the way the Peace Corps treated her after the assault was worse than the actual rape. Now an Ivy League professor, Koenen had never told her story publicly until she saw the ABC News investigation about victims of assault.
Kate Puzey was serving in a village in the West African nation of Benin in March 2009 when she began to suspect that a Peace Corps employee named Constant Bio, a citizen of Benin, was sexually harassing and sleeping with female students at the school where she taught. She sent an email to country headquarters reporting her suspicions and recommending he be fired.
"Please believe me, I'm not someone who likes to create problems, but this has been weighing heavily on me," reads the e-mail she sent, obtained by ABC News.
Bio's brother worked as a manager in the Peace Corps office and Puzey asked her role be kept secret. She was found with her throat slit shortly after Bio received word from Peace Corps officials that he would be dismissed from his contractor position.
The suspect has been in custody since the murder while authorities in Benin investigate. Bio asserted his innocence in a letter to a newspaper in Benin, claiming he was being framed by America. Benin authorities have said they do not yet have enough evidence to try Bio.