Georgia senator's bill would protect Peace Corps workers

McClatchy NewspapersJune 23, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, along with a bipartisan group of lawmakers from Texas and California, introduced legislation Thursday aimed at protecting Peace Corps workers who report sexual and other assaults while working in the field.

For Isakson, the legislation is the culmination of two years of behind-the-scenes advocacy on behalf of murdered Peace Corps worker Kate Puzey.

Two years ago, Puzey was found dead. Her throat had been slit as she slept on the front porch of her hut in the small West African village of Badjoude, Benin, shortly after she reported a colleague for allegedly molesting some of the young girls they helped teach.

"The sacrifice of Kate Puzey's life demands that we provide every Peace Corps volunteer with the security and protection necessary to carry out their job," Isakson said.

Ever since he met Puzey's family at her funeral, Isakson has worked to convince the government of Benin and the U.S. State Department to investigate Puzey's death. Isakson serves as the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on African Affairs, and last month he hand-delivered a sealed letter from the Puzeys to Benin President Thomas Yayi Boni.

This month, Isakson drove to the Puzeys' suburban home in Cumming, Ga., to deliver a letter of apology and a promise of an investigation into Kate's death from the Benin government.

"I'm a little emotional," Isakson said Thursday as he stood next to the bill's co-sponsors, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, and California Democrats Sen. Barbara Boxer, Rep. Howard Berman and Rep. Sam Farr. "I never met Kate in life."

Puzey's slaying, which is under investigation, is just one of a series of violent attacks on female Peace Corps workers in recent years. The attacks have rocked the government-run volunteer organization, which for 50 years was an embodiment of President John F. Kennedy's dream of talented young men and women helping developing countries. Intensified scrutiny from the news media and Congress has led the Peace Corps to change its practices in dealing with volunteers' complaints of rape and other assaults.

The bill seeks to codify those changes by providing whistleblower protection for Peace Corps workers, requiring the organization to report and develop training methods for dealing with sexual assaults, and directing the Peace Corps to submit to Congress annual reports on assaults on volunteers. From 2000 to 2009, an average of 22 female Peace Corps workers a year reported that they were victims of sexual assault, according to the organization.

Such crimes often are unreported, and the true figures might be much higher.

"What I like so much about this legislation is that it also helps those countries that don't always get that women have to be protected," Boxer said. To those countries, the bill "sends a message about victims' rights and the rights of women in particular," she said.

Boxer said she was confident that the bill would win broad bipartisan support and passage.

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