April was "Sexual Assault Awareness Month" and here at PolicyMic, a series was dedicated to that very topic. Sexual assault was addressed in many of its’ complexities — from prevention, to reporting and health outcomes — and in many of its contexts, from the military to college campuses and detention facilities. Recently on the Hill, there has been an effort to extend the health care coverage for women who volunteer with the Peace Corps to include abortion in the case of rape, incest, or life endangerment. This reminds us of yet another arena in which this discussion is often absent, and yet obviously belongs: the Peace Corps.
The military has received particular attention when it comes to rates of sexual assault, and recent legislation has ensured that women serving in the military would have health coverage for abortions in the cases of rape and incest. This extension of coverage for women who serve in the military, known as the Shaheen Amendment, passed with bipartisan support. And yet, women who volunteer with the Peace Corps remain without such coverage ... despite the fact that between 2000 and 2009, more than 1,000 volunteers reported a sexual assault, which included over 221 rapes or attempted rapes.
In fact, in 2011 the program in Kazakhstan was ended early as a result of several serious cases of sexual assault. Sadly, even the Peace Corps has been guilty of a "blame the victim culture," according to an ABC 20/20 report on the murder of a female volunteer while serving in Benin. While the Peace Corps did pass stricter protocols on addressing and responding to sexual assaults after that horrible tragedy, health coverage for these women remains incomplete.
Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced the "Peace Corps Equity Act of 2013" bill last Thursday. Having worked on this very issue for over 2 years, Lautenberg argues: "Women who serve in the Peace Corps face inherent risks to their safety, including sexual assault, yet their own country restricts their access to care. My legislation will ensure that Peace Corps volunteers don’t have to forfeit their rights or jeopardize their health when they volunteer to help under-served populations throughout the world.'
In a statement released by Advocates for Youth, they point out that "Peace Corps volunteers remain one of the only groups of women who receive their health care services through the federal government who are denied coverage for abortion services in the cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment." They applaud Senator Lautenberg, and his co-sponsors (who include Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)) for introducing this important bill.
In sum, as Elaine Weiss wrote over at the ACLU: "Peace Corps volunteers already sacrifice so much — it’s time we stop asking them to sacrifice basic health care coverage as well."