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Peace Corps insensitive to rapes, volunteers testify

WASHINGTON — It was an extraordinarily dramatic scene, even for Congress: Three Peace Corps volunteers raped while serving overseas, plus the mother of a fourth who was murdered in Benin, complaining to lawmakers about one of the government’s most revered agencies.

Their theme was similar: The Peace Corps, which happens to be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, did little to train its workers about how to avoid or deal with violent attacks. And it reacted insensitively and unhelpfully in the aftermath of the crimes, they said.

“I want the young women who go into the Peace Corps today to be protected,” said Carol Marie Clark, who testified Wednesday that she joined the Peace Corps in 1984 at age 22 in Nepal and was raped and impregnated by the program’s director there.

“If anything happens to them, I want those women to be treated with compassion and respect,” said Clark, now a teacher in rural North Carolina. “They should be heard, supported and healed, not blamed, reprimanded or ignored.”

The women’s accounts prompted Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams, appearing at the same hearing, to apologize for neglecting what he called his agency’s top priority: the health and safety of its volunteers. He said the agency has already taken steps like writing guidelines about how to respond to sexual crimes, hiring a crime victims’ advocate, and consulting with outside groups about additional steps they can take.

“The Peace Corps has not always been sufficiently responsive, compassionate or sensitive to victims of crime and their families,” Williams told the House Foreign Relations Committee. “It is heart-breaking to learn, and I apologize for any additional pain the agency has inflicted on our volunteers.”

No partisan divides were visible as lawmakers on the committee spoke of pursuing legislation that might take steps like improve training of volunteers and their managers abroad for preventing and responding to crimes.

“Your testimony will change the way business is being done in the Peace Corps,” Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., told the witnesses.

The Associated Press generally does not publish the names of rape victims but the women at Wednesday’s hearing testified openly to the committee and used their names freely.

The Peace Corps has sent over 200,000 Americans to serve in 139 countries since its founding in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Currently, more than 8,600 volunteers are at work in 77 nations.

According to Peace Corps figures, volunteers reported more than 1,000 sexual assaults from 2000 to 2009, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes. A 2010 report by the Peace Corps’ inspector general found that when compared to crime statistics gathered by the United Nations from 86 countries, Peace Corps volunteers suffered higher rates of rape and burglary than every nation reporting.