Peace Corps volunteers detail sexual assaults

Former Peace Corps Volunteer Jessica Smochek
Former Peace Corps Volunteer Jessica Smochek testifies before a congressional committee on Wednesday, May 11, 2011.
CBS News

The Peace Corps is one of the most respected American institutions. For decades, its volunteers have won admiration the world over. Former volunteers appeared on Capitol Hill Wednesday to say the Peace Corps did not do enough to prepare them for the risks they face, and to press Congress for action.

CBS News chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford reports that some volunteers gave graphic testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Jessica Smochek was a 23-year-old college graduate who wanted to dedicate her life to helping others. She joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Bangladesh. Three months later, a group of men attacked her.

"They surrounded me. Grabbed me. Knocked me to the ground and began touching and kissing me," Smochek said in her testimony.

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Smochek complained to Peace Corps staff. She asked for mace or pepper spray or to be relocated. Then she was attacked again.

"They started by raping me and they forced other objects inside my body. And when they were done violating me with their bodies and their objects, they intensified their physical assaults. They yelled insults and threatened to kill me. I began to think it would never end and I begged them for the death they promised. They just laughed," Smochek said.

Her story isn't unique. Nepal volunteer Carol Clark also detailed a brutal 15-hour long rape and beating at the hearing.

The Peace Corps has more than 8,000 volunteers and trainees working in 77 countries. The volunteers are primarily idealistic young people serving impoverished areas.

Peace Corps workers say they aren't told of the risks in those countries, and that even the training videos make rapes seem like the victims fault. Between 2000 and 2009, there have been 221 rapes or attempted rapes and 1,078 sexual assaults on Peace Corps volunteers.

However, victims say that when they came forward, they were ignored or given little support.

"i felt belittled and blamed," Clark said, adding that she was told to lie about going home. "I was told to tell others I was leaving because of dysentery."

Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams today promised change.

"I apologize for any additional pain the agency has inflicted on our volunteers," Williams said. "The victims of sexual assault deserve nothing but compassion and support. First and foremost, I will be addressing victim care, make sure we are focused on this," Williams said.

Williams said that while his top priority is the safety of its volunteers, the agency was not responsive or sensitive enough when they became victims of violent crime, the Associated Press reports. He said the Peace Corps has acted to improve training, and is ready to work with Congress on legislation making additional changes.

The Peace Corps also said today it will revamp its training videos. Critics say sexual violence is a years-old problem in the Peace Corps. Apparently, the problem continues: CBS News has learned that just four days ago a Peace Corps volunteer reported a rape in West Africa.

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    Jan Crawford is CBS News Chief Political and Legal Correspondent. She is from "Crossroads," Alabama.