Jess Smochek was in her early twenties when she was gang-raped in Bangladesh during her stint as a Peace Corps volunteer. The brutal assault took place after Smochek had pleaded to be reassigned; she said that the group of men, who had tried to stalk, touch, and kiss her from the day she arrived in the city, raped her with their bodies and with foreign objects.
“They slammed me against the wall and just started threatening me, they’re calling me a filthy American whore,” she said. “‘We told you to stop going to the police. And now we have to kill you.’”
According to Smochek, the Peace Corps then tried to cover up the violence, fearful of offending officials in Bangladesh. This story is familiar to a distressingly large number of Peace Corps volunteers, who were assaulted while abroad and then made to feel as though the rapes were their fault. They are now speaking out about the violence committed against them. On Wednesday, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing to examine what Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called a “safety problem [that] has been disguised for decades.”
According to the New York Times, “from 2000 to 2009, on average, 22 Peace Corps women each year reported being the victims of rape or attempted rape, the agency says. During that time, more than 1,000 Peace Corps volunteers reported sexual assaults, including 221 rapes or attempted rapes.” And since the incidence of sexual assault reporting is low, the real numbers are probably much higher.
The victim-blaming culture at the Peace Corps seems to be strong. The agency announced that it will replace a video in which victims “appear on camera describing what they had done wrong to bring on sexual assault.” Another woman said that a Peace Corps medical officer “made me write in my testimony that I was intoxicated” and suggested that “I willingly had sex with this guy.”
Strangely enough, as Mother Jones blogger Suzy Khimm points out, the Republicans are leading the charge in investigating potential failures to protect and respect sexual assault victims and reduce rape culture within the Peace Corps. The Democrats are apparently “skittish” about investigating the allegations, fearing that the Republicans would ultimately use the evidence to fuel funding cuts to the Peace Corps. This, needless to say, is an incredibly cowardly way to approach the issue.