Peace Corps Gang Rape: Volunteer Says U.S. Agency Ignored Warnings

Anna Schecter and Brian Ross, ABC News, January 12, 2011

More than 1,000 young American women have been raped or sexually assaulted in the last decade while serving as Peace Corps volunteers in foreign countries, an ABC News 20/20 investigation has found.

In some cases, victims say, the Peace Corps has ignored safety concerns and later tried to blame the women who were raped for bringing on the attacks.

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She is one of six rape and sexual assault victims who agreed to tell their stories, in hopes the Peace Corps will do a better job of volunteer training and victim counseling. The report will be broadcast Friday night on 20/20.

In the most brutal attack, Jess Smochek, 29, of Pennsylvania was gang raped in Bangladesh in 2004 by a group of young men after she says Peace Corps officials in the country ignored her pleas to re-locate her.

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Smochek says the group began to stalk her and tried to kiss her and touch her from the very first day she arrived at the city where she was assigned.

“Every day we felt unsafe. And we reported everything, we just kept reporting,” she said in an interview with five other former volunteers who also were rape or sexual assault victims.

She says the gang rape took place just hours after a Peace Corps safety official filed a report with the local police but again ignored her pleas for re-assignment.

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She says the Peace Corps immediately began to cover up what happened to her, fearful, she says, of offending officials in Bangladesh.

“When the decision was made that I was to go to Washington, D.C., I was told to tell volunteers that I was having my wisdom teeth out,” Smochek says.

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Between 2000 and 2009, Peace Corps figures show there were 221 rapes or attempted rapes, 147 major sexual attacks and 719 other sexual assaults_defined as unwanted or forced kissing, fondling or groping.

According to the figures, there is a yearly average of 22 rapes. There were 15 in the year for which the figures are most recently available, 2009

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But some victims say the Peace Corps has continued to treat them in an insensitive way.

“There isn’t a point person or an advocate or someone who is managing the case,” said Casey Frazee of Cincinnati, Ohio who was sexually assaulted in South Africa in 2009. She has established a support group and website for other Peace Corps victims, First Response Action.

“No one is really looking at this because there’s this over-idealized picture of the JFK Peace Corps,” said Frazee.

Maggie Young of New Mexico says she decided to tell the story of her rape in South Africa in 2008 because she feels more should be known about the problem.

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In the case of the gang rape victim, Jess Smochek, she says she was made to feel the attack was her fault because she had been walking alone shortly after 5 p.m.

“I had to list all the things that I had done wrong to cause this to happen to me,” she says her counselor told her.

Other women said they were told that by having a drink or two they had invited the attacks.

“I was a risky person, and that I had in some way put myself in that situation,” said Adrianna Ault Nolan, who was raped in 1998 but says she still carries the mental scars of the incident.

“I still blame myself,” says Christina Holsomback of Alabama, who was raped in the country of Georgia in 2008. “Maybe I should not have had a drink or maybe we shouldn’t have gone to dinner.”

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