A Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee held the hearing Tuesday in the aftermath of reports published in the Dayton, Ohio Daily News last year which described the violent assault, robbery, rape and murder of Peace Corps volunteers serving around the world.
The articles were published last October, following a two-year investigation in which 500 people in 11 countries were interviewed.
An official with the congressional General Accounting Office does not take issue with the published reports. He says a report prepared by his office in July 2002 indicated a rise in violent crime against Peace Corps workers. Jess Ford is the G.A.O.'s director of International Affairs and Trade.
Mr. Ford said, "The Peace Corps' reported rates for most types of assaults have increased since the Peace Corps began collecting such data in 1990."
Mr. Ford says the full extent of crime against Peace Corps workers is unknown because there is significant underreporting of crimes by volunteers.
Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez says his agency has taken steps to improve volunteers' safety by introducing new security measures and streamlining existing ones.
Mr. Vasquez said,"There have been very significant changes that have now been implemented throughout the Peace Corps in response to a world that is changing, a world that is evolving."
Among those changes, he said the agency has established safety and security coordinators who are responsible for implementing agency safeguards in each country where Peace Corps volunteers serve.
Cynthia Threlkeld, Guatemala Country Peace Corps Director says she appreciates concerns over volunteers' safety, but she says security measures can also go too far.
Ms. Threlkeld said, "I sincerely doubt you would find any volunteers currently serving in Guatemala who will complain that Peace Corps does not provide enough information, support, or training on safety and security. It is more likely they would complain that too many measures are in place and it restricts their personal liberties."
Senator Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who once served as a Peace Corps volunteer,agrees.
Senator Chris Dodd said,"The success of a volunteer is their ability to connect and relate to a community. If they become overly burdened with security it makes it awfully difficult to get the job done. So striking that balance is not an easy challenge, I admit."
Senator Dodd expressed his support for a proposal to create the position of Peace Corps Inspector General to oversee security and other issues in the program, and make the job subject to Senate confirmation.