On Monday, President Obama signed into law the Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act of 2011, offering better protections for Peace Corps volunteers.
The law ended a long public campaign by volunteers who said the humanitarian agency did little to help victims of sexual assault.
In 2009, Puzey was a 24-year-old Georgian stationed in a small village in the tree-shaped West African country of Benin. The Peace Corps volunteer was killed just days after she sent confidential e-mails to a superior about a Peace Corps contractor she believed was molesting female students.
Please believe me, I'm not someone who likes to create problems, but this has been weighing heavily on me, Puzey wrote in an email to the organization's Benin office. The brother of her suspected murderer worked as a manager at the office and, though she asked for her role to be kept secret, she was found dead on the porch of her hut soon after relaying her concerns.
People were extremely shocked, said Elliot Grochal. Grochal was also stationed in Benin with the Peace Corps at the time and said volunteers from across the country made travel arrangements to meet in the Beninese capital Cotonou.
There were a lot of rumors, anger, and sadness, Grochal recalled. The murder came as a complete shock to most of us; we knew the accused person had a reputation for having relations with previous volunteers, but nobody suspected that he would escalate his problems to a murder.
Puzey's slaying was just one of a series of violent attacks on female Peace Corps workers in recent years, and the incident sparked a backlash against the organization for its treatment of volunteers, who are often stationed in remote, volatile countries.
The subsequent investigation into Puzey's murder revealed what some called a trend in the Peace Corps of blaming the victim, where volunteers who reported problems were made to feel responsible for crimes committed against them.
We all have to assume some risk the moment we get on that plane, Grochal noted. Peace Corps does make an effort during training to ensure the safety of all volunteers. It's how Peace Corps handled these incidents once they happened that was problematic.
Unlike previous legislation that did not pass Congress, the new bill was supported by the Peace Corps. Many of the changes had already been adopted by the agency, whose director, Aaron S. Williams, acknowledged a blame the victim culture.
U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson hailed the law as a major victory.
This is a historic day for past, present and future Peace Corps volunteers, he said. Isakson, a Georgia Republican and Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, introduced the legislation in July of this year.
May this new law honor the life of the remarkable young woman, Kate Puzey, as it ensures that all of the courageous young men and women who serve in the Peace Corps from now on have the protections they rightly deserve, Isakson added.
He attended Puzey's funeral in 2009 and has worked with the family ever since to make sure the young woman's death was not in vain.
The new legislation provides whistleblower protection for Peace Corps volunteers, a safeguard currently in place for federal employees but not for volunteers. This type of protection would've shielded Puzey when she reported her allegations.
Under the new law, volunteers will receive better training on how to avoid attacks, those who report wrongdoing will be protected and advocacy for sexual assault victims will be stronger.
From 2000 to 2009, an average of 22 female Peace Corps workers a year reported that they were victims of sexual assault, according to the organization. The Peace Corps will now submit annual reports to Congress on attacks against volunteers.
While the legislations' supporters, like the Puzey family, had hoped for a guaranteed number of professional victim advocates, instead, third-year volunteers will be trained and designated as advocates in each of the 77 nations the Peace Corps operates in.
One thing the law fails to address is the Peace Corps' law enforcement response to violent crimes. This moved from the inspector general's office to its own in-country staff in 2008. The in-country staff typically has little or no law enforcement training and former volunteers and investigators have criticized the shift as a weakness in pursuing justice for the victims.
The suspects in Kate Puzey's case, for instance, are in jail, but have yet to go on trial.
The Peace Corps was founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Over the years, the Peace Corps has adapted and responded to the concerns of the times, tacking issues from AIDS education to environmental preservation. Since 1961, over 200,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps, working in 139 countries across the globe.