Professor Kept Her Secret Until '20/20' Report on Assaults Against Peace Corps Women

Karestan Koenen reveals sexual assault while serving in Peace Corps in Africa.

ByABC News
May 5, 2011, 2:58 PM

May 9, 2011 — -- Karestan Koenen, a former Peace Corps volunteer who was raped while serving in the African country of Niger in the 1990s, says the Peace Corps' treatment of her in the aftermath "was like being raped all over again."

"I trusted the Peace Corps, I believed in the Peace Corps. And then [Peace Corps officials] did everything they could to blame me, to not provide adequate care, and even to provide care that was subsequently harmful to me," she told ABC News in a recent interview.

In an ABC News investigation that aired on "20/20," former Peace Corps volunteers alleged that they had been mistreated by the Peace Corps after they were victims of sexual assault while serving overseas. On Wednesday, Congress will convene a hearing about violence against Peace Corps volunteers and what critics call the organization's inadequate response.

WATCH Part One of the "20/20" report

WATCH Part Two of the "20/20" report

WATCH Part Three of the "20/20" report

Koenen, now an associate professor of trauma psychology at Columbia University and an adjunct at Harvard, had kept the rape a secret for years until she watched the January "20/20" report.

Koenen says she is speaking out to show that this is not a recent problem that is isolated to just a few women. "What's so horrifying to me now is that that nothing has changed," she said. "This has been going on for decades at least. People need to know that this is a chronic problem that the Peace Corps has been unable and unwilling to change," she said.

WATCH an interview with Karestan Koenen

Koenen grew up in rural New Jersey, and had never heard of Niger until she learned she was accepted into the Peace Corps and assigned to a post there. At the time, Koenen was a 22-year-old graduate of Wellesley College with dreams of pursuing a career as a development economist focused on sub-Saharan Africa. As soon as she received news of her assignment she quit her job at the Federal Reserve Bank and, in June 1991, headed for Niger, then the poorest country in the world.

Koenen and the other volunteers ran into danger almost as soon as they arrived. During the 11-week in-country training session, her bunkmate was raped and two male volunteers were assaulted by a group of local men. Koenen was robbed during the incident, but continued with the program.

Once at her post in southern Niger, she was constantly harassed by local men, but she said she did not fear for her physical safety.

A Peace Corps spokesperson said the organization will never be able to eliminate volunteers' exposure to crimes overseas, but that it "will continue to do its best to make Peace Corps a safe and productive experience for the Americans serving today and the future."

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