Washington, DC – Congressman Howard L. Berman, Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the following opening statement at today’s full committee mark-up of H.R. 2337, the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 and H.R. 2699, the Peace Corps Volunteer Service Improvement Act of 2011.
Today marks an important step towards improving the safety and security of volunteers that serve in the Peace Corps. We took up the issue of volunteer safety earlier this year, after the broadcast of an extremely disturbing report on the ABC news program “20/20”. The segment detailed the experiences of a number of young volunteers who were sexually assaulted while serving overseas, but did not receive the care and support they needed from the Peace Corps. The show also examined the circumstances surrounding the death of Kate Puzey, a volunteer in the West African country of Benin who was murdered after reporting that a fellow teacher was sexually abusing some of his students.
In May, we held a very useful hearing on these issues, with witnesses that included returned volunteers who were survivors of sexual assault; the Inspector General of the Peace Corps; and the Peace Corps Director.
The testimony we received from the survivors and the Inspector General provided very concrete suggestions on ways to improve the Peace Corps, which we have done our best to incorporate into these bills. These include requiring the Peace Corps to have comprehensive policies and training for volunteers and staff on risk-reduction and response; the establishment of a Victim Support Office to focus exclusively on supporting victims of sexual assault and other crimes; and completing a Memorandum of Understanding between the Peace Corps and the State Department clarifying security-related responsibilities.
To his credit, the Peace Corps Director, Aaron Williams, detailed the steps the agency is already taking to improve support for victims of sexual assault and other crimes, and what he told us was very encouraging. The Peace Corps has already hired a Victim’s Advocate, established a confidentiality policy, and started the process of re-writing and updating their sexual assault risk-reduction and response policies and training. These bills codify some of the important measures that Director Williams has put in place, to ensure that they are retained by future Directors.
At the hearing, I suggested that what we needed to do was some good old-fashioned oversight: gathering the facts, asking the tough questions, and developing a responisble, bipartisan approach to fix any problems we find. And I believe that’s exactly what we’ve done with our work on these Peace Corps bills. We’ve gotten valuable input from NGOs, advocacy groups, our partners in the Senate, and the Peace Corps. The result is a comprehensive, balanced bill that will make the Peace Corps a better organization for all of its volunteers and its partner countries. Madam Chairman, this is a model for how the legislative process is supposed to work. I’d like to thank you and Mr. Poe, and your staffs, for working closely with us on these important issues.
On its 50th anniversary, the Peace Corps continues to perform a vital role in promoting community-based development in some of the world’s poorest countries, sharing American values, and enriching our own nation by bringing knowledge of other countries and cultures back to the United States. No agency, with such a modest budget, has done more than the Peace Corps to extend America’s presence in nearly every part of the world, and none has enjoyed such bipartisan support.
These bills will strengthen the Peace Corps, and help ensure that the agency can continue to do its important work well into the future.
I urge my colleagues to support these pieces of legislation.