WASHINGTON — It was a good week for Sen. Johnny Isakson and the family of murdered Peace Corps worker Kate Puzey.
After two years of behind-the-scenes advocacy and crisscrossing the globe, Isakson, along with a bipartisan group of lawmakers from Texas and California, was finally able to introduce legislation this week aimed at protecting Peace Corps workers who report sexual and other assaults while working in the field.
The bill is named for murdered Peace Corps worker Kate Puzey. Two years ago the young Georgia volunteer's throat was 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.
Puzey's slaying, which is under investigation, is just one of a series of violent sexual attacks on female Peace Corps workers in recent years. Some of the survivors of those attacks were present at the bill introduction and gazed solemnly at Kate's enlarged photo as the senator spoke.
"Today is a very special day," Isakson said during the bill introduction. He grew a little emotional as he talked about Kate's life and violent death.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has even gotten involved in the case and wrote Benin President Thomas Yayi Boni last month to underscore the "great importance the United States government places on the vigorous investigation" of Kate Puzey's murder.
"I am grateful for your close attention to this case and am reassured by your promise that the three suspects who are in prison will not be released until the case has gone to trial and a verdict is reached," Clinton wrote. "I understand that your government has accepted our offer of further technical assistance from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, and hope this cooperation will prove fruitful."
The attacks on Peace Corps workers 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 safety and security of our volunteers is Peace Corps' top priority. We will continue to do everything we can to enhance the health, safety, and security of these dedicated Americans serving our country overseas," Peace Corps director Aaron Williams said in a statement after the Kate Puzey bill was introduced. "In particular, we are committed to fully supporting all volunteers who are victims of sexual assault. Each volunteer is a valued member of the Peace Corps family and every victim of sexual assault deserves the utmost compassion and support."
Since Williams took the helm of the Peace Corps in August 2009 and spoke with Isakson and other lawmakers, the organization has taken a number of steps to address sexual assault, including establishing a panel of outside experts and sexual assault victims, hiring a victims advocate, and working with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network — the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization.
"The Peace Corps welcomes the work of Congress on this important issue and looks forward to continuing our joint efforts to improve our response to sexual assaults and other crimes," Williams said.
The bill seeks to make those changes law 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.
Sexually violent crimes often go unreported, and the true figures might be much higher
As for the Puzey family, the week was filled with emotional highs and lows.
"It's bittersweet. It's sad because it brings back again the fact she is gone," said Kate's mother, Lois Puzey. "From the devastation we felt in the beginning to now it's been an amazing journey — especially with Isakson as our champion and to see this legislation come together. It's very humbling and very gratifying."