April 6, 2011 -- A Peace Corps volunteer who spoke out on "20/20" about being gang raped while serving in Bangladesh was honored by Congress Wednesday for her work on behalf of victims.
Jess Smochek of Pennsylvania, 29, received the 2011 Suzanne McDaniel Public Awareness Award from the bipartisan Congressional Victims' Rights Caucus at a Capitol Hill ceremony attended by members of Congress and victims advocates. After she was attacked, Smochek helped raise awareness of sexual assaults on Peace Corps volunteers and what she and other advocates consider the Corps' lack of support for victims.
"Thanks to the courage and determination of Jessica Smochek," said Rep. Ted Poe, R.-Texas, co-chair of the Caucus, "the mistreatment of victims of violence and the inadequate response from the Peace Corps has captured the attention of the nation" Rep. Poe, who hosted Wednesday's event along with Caucus co-chair Rep. Jim Costa, D.-California, called Smochek's advocacy on behalf of victims "inspiring" and said that because of her Congress will have hearings next month "to hold the Peace Corps accountable" for the safety of volunteers.
Smochek told ABC News it was "incredibly humbling" to be recognized by the Victims' Rights Caucus. "They are my heroes, both for the work they've done for so many vulnerable populations and for the work I believe some of them are doing even now to help make sure my story won't have to be retold by future Peace Corps Volunteers."
Smochek was attacked while serving as a volunteer in Bangladesh in 2004. She says that a group of men began to stalk her from the very first day she arrived in the city where she was assigned. The men tried to kiss her and touch her, and ultimately gang raped her.
"They all took turns raping me," she told ABC News. "They raped me with their bodies. They raped me with foreign objects."
Smochek told ABC News about the attack in a joint interview with five other former volunteers who also were rape or sexual assault victims.
CLICK HERE to watch Brian Ross interview the sexual assault victims.
The gang rape occurred, she says, after Peace Corps officials in Bangladesh ignored her pleas to be relocated.
"Every day we felt unsafe. And we reported everything, we just kept reporting," she said.
She says the gang rape took place just hours after a Peace Corps safety official filed a report with the local police but again ignored her pleas for re-assignment. She says the young men knew she had complained to the police.
"They slammed me against the wall and just started threatening me, they're calling me a filthy American whore," she said. "'We told you to stop going to the police. And now we have to kill you.'" Smochek was left unconscious in a back alley.
Jess Smochek Alleges Cover-Up By Peace Corps
Smochek says that after the attack, the Peace Corps immediately began to cover up what had happened -- fearful, she says, of offending officials in Bangladesh. She was sent back to the U.S.
"When the decision was made that I was to go to Washington, D.C., I was told to tell volunteers that I was having my wisdom teeth out," Smochek says.
At the time of the original "20/20" report, Peace Corps deputy director Carrie Hessler-Radelet denied the Peace Corps had attempted to cover up or keep quiet rapes and sexual assaults.
"This is the first I've heard of any report of that nature," she said.
The country director for the Peace Corps in Bangladesh at the time of Smochek's service, Silas Kenala, told ABC News that because he no longer is a Peace Corp employee he cannot speak about the case. "All I can tell you is that I did what was required to be done according to Peace Corps procedures," Kenala said.
Between 2000 and 2009, Peace Corps figures show there were 221 rapes or attempted rapes, 147 major sexual attacks and 719 other sexual assaults -- defined as unwanted or forced kissing, fondling or groping.
Peace Corps officials say the number of rapes has gradually declined over the decade.
In 2010, Smochek joined forces with a group called First Response Action Coalition to advocate for a better response from the Peace Corps to incidents of physical and sexual violence. First Response Action has met with Rep. Poe and other members of Congress to press for improved safety for volunteers.
Reps. Poe and Rohrabacher Call For Hearings
In the wake of the "20/20" investigation, Rep. Poe called for a Congressional hearing, telling ABC News he was "furious and sad" after watching the "20/20" report. The House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, of which Poe is a member, will hold hearings next month on the Peace Corps' handling of more than a thousand cases of female volunteers who were raped or sexually assaulted over the last decade.
"This is very upsetting. If these numbers are accurate this is something that Congress definitely should investigate," Rep. Rohrabacher, R-California, chairman of the subcommittee, told ABC News.
In his letter asking for the hearing, Poe called the Peace Corps' alleged treatment of assault victims "gross negligence in caring for its volunteers abroad."
"The Peace Corps did not adequately protect its volunteers, bring U.S. resources to bear on any criminal investigation, nor provide proper care for the victims in the aftermath," Poe wrote.
"I have three daughters about Jess's age. They want to save the world too," said Rep. Poe. "People like Jess are the salt of the earth and it's just horrible our government doesn't stand beside them."
In a statement to ABC News, Peace Corps Director Williams said the agency had "made significant improvements over the past two years in providing support to sexual assault victims."
"We look forward to working with Congress to further strengthen the Peace Corps and advance our mission of world peace and friendship," said Williams.
The Congressional Victims' Rights Caucus sponsors awards each year in conjunction with National Crime Victims' Rights Week to honor crime victims and victims' advocates. The Suzanne McDaniel Award, one of five awards to be given out by the Caucus Wednesday night, is named after a famed Texas victims' advocate.