May 11, 2011 — -- Congress are holding hearings today about sexual violence against Peace Corps volunteers and what critics call the organization's inadequate response.
The hearings come 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 before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington today 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.
For 20 years, Harvard professor Karestan Koenen told no one except close friends and family about what had happened to her in the Peace Corps in Africa.
"Honestly, at the time I was devastated," Koenen told ABC News.
But when Koenen saw the ABC News report with former volunteers recalling how they were mistreated as rape victims by the Peace Corps, she says she felt she had to speak up.
"What horrified me was that nothing has changed in 20 years," said Koenen. "I felt like I really had no choice but to come forward."
Koenen was a volunteer in Niger in 1991 when she was attacked in broad daylight at a friend's home. She says she was victimized a second time when a Peace Corps official in Washington blamed her for what happened.
"I walk into her office and the first thing she says to me is, 'I am so sick of you girls going out with men, drinking and dancing and then when something happens, you call it rape,' " recalled Koenen. "I felt like someone had just kicked me in the stomach."
Former Peace Corps volunteer Carol Clark, who will also testify today, said she too was made to feel responsible for her own rape when she reported what had happened to her in Nepal in 1985. A Peace Corps counselor asked her to list the things she had done to put herself in danger, and what she could have done to prevent the rape. Clark also said the counselor chided her for being late to the meeting, calling it a sign of her irresponsible nature.
Clark says she was overwhelmed with frustration that she was blamed for being raped, and said the blame still stings 25 years later.
Blaming the Victim
That same sense of feeling blamed is what former Peace Corps volunteers described in the original ABC News report.
Jill Hoxmeier, who was assaulted in the South American country of Guyana in 2007, said that because of the limited counseling and support she got after she was attacked, "It was too hard to navigate by myself and so I just gave up."
Jess Smochek, who spoke to ABC News for the original report and will testify before Congress today, said she was made to feel responsible for being gang raped by a group of men in Bangladesh in 2004 because she had been walking alone shortly after 5 p.m.
"I had to list all the things that I had done wrong to cause this to happen to me," she said her counselor told her.
The Peace Corps says it is not its policy to blame volunteers. The agency's current training video for volunteers, however, which has been shown to incoming volunteers within the past month, seems to do just that. In the video, three victims appear on camera to describe what they had supposedly done wrong to bring on their attackers. "I wish I had made different choices," says one of the women.
Koenen was outraged to learn of the video, calling it harmful to victims of assault.
"It's setting an example of how it shouldn't be treated," said Koenen. "It really baffles me. I feel like they're back in the 1950s in terms of treatment. People need to know that this is a chronic problem that the Peace Corps has been unable and unwilling to change."
Koenen has expertise in the field of trauma, and not just because of her own experience two decades ago. Since leaving the Peace Corps, she has earned a doctorate in clinical psychology and has become a leading specialist in the treatment of trauma victims. She teaches at both Columbia University and Harvard.
The director of the Peace Corps, Aaron Williams, who has refused to talk with ABC News, will also appear before Congress today.