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

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"There is no excuse for failing to treat survivors with dignity and compassion, or for leaving families in the dark. Our job today is to identify the gaps and flaws in the current system and lay the groundwork for fixing them in a reasonable, bipartisan manner." -- Congressman Howard L. Berman

Washington, DC -- Congressman Howard L. Berman, Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the following opening statement at today's committee hearing entitled "The Peace Corps at 50."

Madam Chairman, thank you for calling this important hearing.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. Since its founding, nearly 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries around the world, promoting community-based development, sharing American values, and enriching our own nation by bringing knowledge about other countries and cultures back to the United States.

The distinguished list of Peace Corps alumni includes fifteen Members of Congress -- four current Members -- cabinet members, ambassadors, noted journalists, scientists, educators and many others who are leaders in their fields, making an impact around the globe.

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. For that reason, it has enjoyed the strong support of both Republican and Democratic administrations.

However, all of us were deeply troubled by the recent ABC News 20/20 segment, which detailed the circumstances surrounding the murder of a volunteer in the West African nation of Benin, and the sexual assault of volunteers in a number of different countries. The Puzey family was not provided adequate support after the death of their daughter, from the manner in which they were notified to the way her personal effects were returned home. By failing to provide Ms. Smochek with the protection she had requested or removing her from her site, Peace Corps left her open to an attack that could have cost her life. By providing inadequate training to Peace Corps staff and volunteers on how to prevent and respond to sexual assaults, the volunteer community is left vulnerable to physical and psychological trauma.

We have a profound obligation to our volunteers to do everything possible, not only to improve their safety and prevent these crimes from occurring, but to respond effectively in emergency situations. There is no excuse for failing to treat survivors with dignity and compassion, or for leaving families in the dark. Our job today is to identify the gaps and flaws in the current system and lay the groundwork for fixing them in a reasonable, bipartisan manner.

The brave and selfless men and women who choose to spend more than two years of their lives as volunteers -- often in some of the most remote places on earth -- deserve nothing less.

Indeed, the volunteers are -- and always will be -- the Peace Corps' most precious asset. Is the agency doing all it can to protect them? Is it minimizing risks that volunteers face in the field? Is it providing the kind of training, preparation and support they need for emergency situations? Is it using the best protocols to respond to sexual assault and protect survivors? When the worst happens, are they treating families with compassion and respect?

To help answer some of these questions, we are honored to have with us today the mother of Kate Puzey, the volunteer murdered in Benin, and several former volunteers that were the victims of sexual assault. We know it takes enormous courage for you to tell your stories in this very public setting, as I mentioned previously.

We all share the goal of making the Peace Corps of the next fifty years even better than the Peace Corps of the last fifty. It is now our duty to ensure that this agency lives up to the idealism, innovation, and generosity embodied in the volunteers.

Finally, let me just say that it takes a certain kind of person to join the Peace Corps, a certain pioneering spirit, to leave behind all of the comforts they have known for their entire lives, and enter the unknown to serve others. These individuals live with those who are less fortunate than themselves. They see the poverty that grips billions around the world and join them in the struggle to make a small business work, make their crop yields better, gain access to clean water, to combat deadly and debilitating disease. For this service, it is not only the United States, but the world that owes Peace Corps volunteers a debt of gratitude.

I hope we can learn today about how to improve the Peace Corps, and work together in the bipartisan manner that has always marked our approach to the agency. We must do this to honor the courage of the people who are speaking out on these issues; to acknowledge the others who have yet to come forward; and to respect the legacy of an agency that has done so much good in the world.

Thank you and I look forward to your testimony.


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