As Mary Kate Shannon waited to find out if she was pregnant after being raped for the second time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru, the health care coordinator told her her options were limited. “If I were pregnant, the Peace Corps could not pay for the abortion due to some kind of federal law,” Shannon recalled in an interview with Salon. They would, however, pay for parenting classes.
“I felt betrayed,” Shannon said, “I felt like it was a decision that was going to be made for me. I wasn’t in a place financially where I felt like I could pay for it.”
The pregnancy test came back negative, but the experience led Shannon to support to the newly-introduced Peace Corps Equity Act, which would extend insurance coverage for Peace Corps volunteers for abortions in instances of rape. ”The Peace Corps is the only government agency that doesn’t have [insurance coverage of abortion services] for women who become pregnant as a result of rape – it’s a technical fix in that sense,” said Casey Frazee of First Response Action, an advocacy group for Peace Corps volunteers who are survivors of sexual assault.
Women make up about 60 percent of Peace Corps volunteers. It’s difficult to know whether the rate of sexual violence, reported or unreported, is higher for them than in the United States, but their often-isolated circumstances, the perception of young American women as sexually available, and institutional neglect all exacerbated the situation. “Faraway legal systems, magnified loneness and isolation, being away from family in your greatest hour of need, and the unique form of mental health support we receive because of limited in country resources volunteers receive if they chose to return to service,” were some of the factors Shannon cited in a blog post for First Response Action.
That indifference or victim-blaming had been the culture of the Peace Corps for decades became clear in the testimony before Congress for what would become the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, signed by Obama in 2011. Dr. Karestan Koenen testified that after being raped as a volunteer in Niger, she experienced a series of inadequate or harmful responses, including the staff member at the Inspector General’s office who told her, “I am so sick of you girls going over there, drinking, dancing and flirting, and then, if a guy comes on to you, you say you have been raped when you have lead them on.”
Carol Marie Clark, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal the mid-1980s, testified that after she was raped by the Program Director, the Peace Corps told her to “terminate my pregnancy or terminate my service with the Peace Corps.” She flew to Honolulu and had an abortion, but the Peace Corps “provided no funding for the procedure. Instead, the family of my best friend sent me the money I needed.” When she returned to Nepal, she was raped and beaten by a Nepalese official who held her captive at knifepoint for hours. Clark cited a 2010 annual volunteer survey that indicated that nearly 40% of victims of rape, 44% of victims of attempted rape, and nearly 50% of victims of sexual assault had decided not to report the crime.