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Public Statements

Hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee - "Peace Corps at 50"

Statement

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made the following opening statement at a Committee hearing entitled "Peace Corps at 50:"

"March 1st, 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Peace Corps. We initially planned to hold this hearing in March, but postponed it to accommodate their anniversary celebrations.

"Over 200,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps. Today, there are over 8,000 Peace Corps volunteers serving in 77 countries. Three hundred of these volunteers are from the state of Florida, and 9 are from my own district. According to Peace Corps' facts and figures, 60% of current Peace Corps volunteers are female, and the average age of a Peace Corps volunteer is just 28 years old.

"For half a century, Peace Corps volunteers have given their generous talents and skills to help the poor in developing countries, thereby increasing understanding between diverse cultures. For many, these Peace Corps volunteers serve as the only American faces to visit faraway places in distant lands, and volunteers should be proud of their accomplishments, as there are many to celebrate.

"In spite of these successes, it is time to examine how, after 50 years, the Peace Corps, is faring. In particular, we must review how the Peace Corps, as an institution, has supported Peace Corps volunteers.

"Despite critical reports by its own Inspector General, the General Accountability Office, and prior Congressional hearings, Peace Corps' safety and security failures have been a recurrent problem with tragic consequences for thousands of volunteers. Some who seek to ignore those problems have asserted that volunteer service, itself, is inherently risky as an excuse for lax and ineffective safety and security measures. That attitude is unacceptable.

"Clearly, the conditions under which Peace Corps volunteers serve present unique challenges. Volunteers are often deployed to areas with restricted access to reliable communication, with limited or no police and medical services. Volunteers may have only a basic understanding of local language and culture, and may be viewed as relatively wealthy - becoming targets for criminal activity. According to an April 2010 audit report by the Peace Corps Inspector General:

"If compared to public colleges and universities, Peace Corps would rank first for the most robberies, second for most burglaries, and seventh for most aggravated assaults.

"Further, in comparison to crime statistics reported by countries around the world, Peace Corps Volunteers experience higher rates of rape and burglary than any of the 86 countries that responded to the United Nations crime statistics analysis.'

"Historically, the media have downplayed the dangers of serving in the Peace Corps, and have underreported and overlooked criticism of the Peace Corps. Recently, this immunization has started to subside. In 2003, the Dayton Daily News released its seven-part series entitled, "Casualties of Peace." Former Dayton Daily News editor, Jeffrey Bruce stated:

"the extent of this safety problem has been disguised for decades, partly because the assaults occurred thousands of miles away, partly because Peace Corps has made little effort to publicize them and partly because the agency deliberately kept people from finding out--while emphasizing the positive aspects of the Peace Corps.'

"Earlier this year, on January 14, the ABC television news program, 20/20, exposed the Peace Corps' failures regarding the reporting of sexual assault and rape, which spurred many victims to come forward about the mishandling of their cases. According to dozens of disturbing affidavits received by our Committee, the Peace Corps' mishandling of rape and assault spans over four decades. Several of the affidavits are from volunteers currently serving in the Peace Corps. The affidavits received by the Committee were obtained by First Response Action, a support group of volunteers who were victims of rape or assault. The affidavits establish five basic themes:

* Volunteers are generally inadequately trained on sexual assault issues;
* Volunteers are often placed in dangerous situations;
* The Peace Corps' in-country response often fails to meet survivors' needs;
* Upon return to the United States, survivors often receive hostile, rather than supportive treatment; and
* Institutional obstacles often prevent survivors from receiving long-term medical and mental health care.

"Without objection, I would like to include these affidavits in the record.

"At this time, I would also like to include, without objection, a statement from returned volunteers, Chuck Ludlam and Paula Hirschoff, who have been advocates for reform to address problems with the Peace Corps, including safety and security.

"Further, without objection, I would like to include for the record a statement from the Building Bridges Coalition, a consortium of 300 international volunteer organizations, regarding Peace Corps safety and security.

"Finally, I will be handing Mr. Williams a letter from a constituent of mine who was serving in the Peace Corps but was recently terminated. I am asking the Peace Corps to explain why it did not accommodate the medical concerns of this older volunteer.

"At our hearing today, three returned Peace Corps volunteers have made the difficult decision to testify about their traumatic experiences, and I commend them for their bravery, and continued commitment to effect positive change in the Peace Corps. We will also hear from the mother of a Peace Corps volunteer who did not return home. Lois Puzey will testify about her courageous daughter and how the Peace Corps failed Kate when she reported the rape and abuse of students for whom she cared so deeply.

"Following this testimony, we will hear from Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams, and Peace Corps Inspector General Kathy Buller. Our goal is to find ways to address these problems so that future Peace Corps volunteers will not fear for their safety.

"And we are joined today by Senator Isakson from Georgia, whose constituent is Lois Puzey. Senator Isakson's presence is another indication of his commitment to securing justice for Lois's daughter, Kate, who was killed during her service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin.

"I now recognize the Ranking Member, Mr. Berman, for his opening remarks."


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