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.

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.

Kept Rape a Secret

Just six months after her arrival to Africa, however, Koenen was raped.

She and her sister, who was visiting for the Christmas holiday, had gone to visit another volunteer living in the Sahara desert city of Agadez. Her attacker was an acquaintance of the volunteer.

"He followed me into the house and then he started trying to grab me and kiss me, he started trying to pull me into the bedroom," she recounted in an interview. "He held me down with one arm on my chest and one arm on my legs. And then he raped me. The whole time I just couldn't believe this was happening to me."

Koenen said when she reported the rape to the Peace Corps, the in-country physician did a medical exam, but nothing else was done.

"My in-country director never came to visit me, never spoke to me," she said.

She gave a statement to local officials, and her attacker was brought in for questioning and then immediately released. She was told that the man said she had wanted to have sex, and the Peace Corps' in-country officials believed him.

"I would have gotten better treatment as a tourist than as a volunteer," she said. "It's insane."

Koenen said her treatment only got worse once she flew back, alone and of her own volition, to the organization's headquarters in Washington, D.C. According to Koenen, the Peace Corps put her up in a hotel with five other returned female volunteers who had also been victims of sexual assault. When she went to the Peace Corps' Inspector General's office to discuss what had happened to her, she said the woman she spoke with blamed her for the rape.

"I walked 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."

Koenen quit the Peace Corps and went home to New Jersey. Because of the assault, she set out in a new direction professionally, and began to study the psychological impact of trauma.

Koenen, who now has a doctorate in clinical psychology and specializes in trauma, says she has devoted her career to making sure others who experience trauma are not treated in the same harmful way she was.

"I feel like my experience with the Peace Corps in D.C. was worse than the actual rape," she said.

Koenen was giving her young son a bath the night ABC News aired the report on Peace Corps' treatment of six volunteer victims of rape and sexual assault. A friend texted her to turn on the program.

WATCH an interview with survivors of sexual assault.

READ full coverage of violence against women in the Peace Corps

"To hear not just one woman but this group of women, and since then coming in contact with more women who have had the same experience with the Peace Corps," she said, "I felt like I really had no choice but to come forward."

She had told close friends and family about the assault, but had never spoken publicly about it prior to the "20/20" report. She has since been in touch with other victim volunteers since the report, including the women who spoke out on "20/20," and has become involved in First Response Action, a non-profit organization advocating for improvement of Peace Corps' training and response to sexual assault.

Koenen to Testify Before Congress

Koenen is one of three former Peace Corps volunteer rape victims who will be testifying on May 11 before the House Committee on Foreign Relations. In the wake of the "20/20" report, members of Congress decided to probe the way Peace Corps has handled the more than 1,000 reported incidents of sexual assault and rape of volunteers over the last decade.

The Peace Corps declined direct comment on Koenen's account of her experiences while a volunteer, but said that the victims of sexual assault deserve nothing but compassion and support.

"We apologize for any additional pain the agency inflicted on our volunteers," said a spokesperson. "The Peace Corps of today takes the issue of sexual assault prevention and response seriously and we are dedicated to providing compassionate victim-centered care."

"Under Director Aaron Williams' leadership, the agency has implemented a number of measures to expand our ability and commitment to prevent and respond to sexual assaults. We are united in our efforts with returned volunteers, outside organizations, and leaders in the field of sexual assault awareness to further strengthen our global operations and support for the thousands of volunteers serving around the world," said the spokesperson.

In 2008, Peace Corps created a Sexual Assault Working Group (SAWG). This group is in the process of completing a comprehensive sexual assault and rape prevention and response program, and has been working with experts across the federal government in addition to national advocacy groups, according to the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps signed a "Memorandum of Understanding" with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization in March of this year.

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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