Peace Corps Sex Assault Victims Testify Before Congress
In opening statements, Congress demands answers from Peace Corps.
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.
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.