However, it was a step forward last year when President Obama signed the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which included a provision sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), that protects military women by providing insurance coverage for abortion in cases of rape or incest. And this year, the Peace Corps Equity Act, authored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) would extend similar coverage to women in the Peace Corps.
More than 8,000 people, 60 percent of them women, serve in the Peace Corps each year. Such service entails traveling to developing countries where safe and reliable medical care is often scarce and where women face a heightened threat of sexual assault. Despite high-risk conditions, Congress has prohibited abortion coverage for Peace Corps volunteers—with no exceptions for rape, incest or life endangerment—since 1979. The Peace Corps Equity Act (which the Peace Corps itself supports) would repeal this federal ban.
The ban exacerbates already complicated and traumatic situations for women who become rape victims while volunteering abroad. After assault, many women feel isolated and abandoned, and sometimes, fearing ridicule, tell no one about their attack. Such fears may be justified, as one woman who did speak out was blamed by a staff member at the inspector general’s office, who told her,
I am 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 led them on.
After trauma and minimal, if any, emotional support, the last thing rape survivors need is a financial burden. Mary Kate Shannon became pregnant after her second rape as a volunteer in Peru, only to be told by the Peace Corps that they could not pay for an abortion (but would chip in for parenting classes).
Another Peru-based volunteer rape left her with a pelvic inflammatory disease and an unwanted pregnancy. If not for the support of another volunteer’s mother, Christine Carcano’s abortion would have cost her more than a month’s salary.
These women are not alone in their experiences. More than 1,000 Peace Corps volunteers reported sexual assaults between 2000 and 2009. Carol Marie Clark, who was raped by a program director during her service in Nepal, shared statistics from an annual survey that indicated nearly 40 percent of rape victims, 44 percent of attempted rape victims and 50 percent of sexual assault victims did not report their crimes in 2010.
As noted by Sen. Lautenberg, it is glaringly evident that Peace Corps volunteers “face inherent risks to their safety and security.” Such risks necessitate government intervention and protection in the form of abortion coverage. In his proposal, Lautenberg declared,
Peace Corps volunteers selflessly devote themselves to helping underserved populations throughout the world—they should not have to forfeit their rights or jeopardize their health to do so.
Planned Parenthood Action Center has organized a petition in support of the Peace Corps Equity Act. You can show your support for Peace Corps women and reproductive health care by signing here.