After emotional testimony from several former Peace Corps volunteers who were victims of sexual assault abroad, the agency's director promised Congressional lawmakers big changes in the Peace Corps' handling of sex assault cases including putting an end to the practice of "blaming the victim."
"There is no doubt that what these courageous women have done has opened our eyes to what we need to correct and we need to correct it now," Peace Corps director Aaron Williams said. "Rest assured, this type of thing, blaming the victim, will not continue in the Peace Corps of today."
Williams said he would also immediately replace a training tape currently in use at the Peace Corps and obtained by ABC News in which some other victims of sexual assault appear on camera to describe what they had supposedly done wrong to bring on attacks.
Williams spoke before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C., after several female former Peace Corps volunteers told the committee members that not only were they inadequately trained to deal with dangerous situations in the countries to which the Peace Corps had assigned them, but were virtually ignored by the Peace Corps when they tried to report the horrifying crimes against them.
One victim, Jess Smochek, told members of Congress that after she had been brutally gang-raped by several men in Bangladesh in 2002, a Peace Corps medical officer refused to examine her and instead took away her cell phone so she could not call fellow volunteers. Before she returned to the U.S., she said she was instructed to tell fellow volunteers that she had to return to have her wisdom teeth taken out. When she arrived at Washington, D.C., she said she saw a Peace Corps official who made her write down everything she had supposedly done wrong to cause the attack.
"Rather than feeling safe and supported, I felt belittled and betrayed," Smochek said. "[Then] shortly after I left, the country director, without my permission told the female volunteers I was raped, that it was my fault and that it was always the woman's fault... The Peace Corps must change. Women must be protected from rape and the callous treatment that too often follows."
In his testimony, Williams said the Peace Corps "without a doubt" would be open to legislation mandating several reforms the agency was already undertaking on its own including a revamped training program for volunteers and staff, the inclusion of a victim advocate staff, continued support for volunteers after they leave the Peace Corps and enforced protection for whistleblowers.
The hearings came after an ABC News investigation that revealed that hundreds of female Peace Corps volunteers had been raped or sexually abused overseas, with many claiming the Peace Corps then blamed them for what happened and forced them to quit. Two of the women who testified said they were moved to tell their stories in public for the first time after seeing the ABC News reports on "Good Morning America" and "20/20" and deciding they could keep silent no longer.
Director Williams repeatedly denied requests for an interview with ABC News.