Not long after Christine Carcano learned the man who had raped her on the street in Peru had left her pregnant and with a case of pelvic inflammatory disease, there was another unwelcome revelation: The Peace Corps could evacuate her to Washington, but it couldn't pay for her abortion -- which would cost more than a month of her salary.
Carcano decided to tell her story publicly for the first time after reading here about the Peace Corps Equity Act, introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg last week, which would modify the current policy by extending Peace Corps health coverage to abortions in case of rape. Carcano, who is now working as a research assistant on HIV/AIDS, says she wasn't particularly educated about the politics of abortion. But then, in the months after her ordeal, the headlines were full of politicians talking about abortion, "legitimate rape" and doubting rape victims could even become pregnant. "I came back to my country and I felt like other Americans were against me or against my choices," she says.
It was around Christmas in the small town where Carcano, now 24, was serving as a health volunteer. There was a drunk man in the plaza harassing her, and the male cousin of her host family told him to back off and respect her. That same night, the cousin pinned her down in the street and raped Carcano, hidden in darkness in a town with only two street lamps.
"I fought and fought, but he was stronger than me," Carcano recalled. "I was eventually able to push him off but it wasn’t enough." As she sobbed on her way home, he said he didn't understand why she was upset, and for weeks he continued to follow Carcano around and show up at her door. She told no one about the rape.
"I was afraid for people to think that I did it to myself or that I was lying, or that I didn’t protect myself and I should have known better," she says now. After all, Carcano, who had majored in human biology at the University of Texas, had heard the warnings before she left. Around that time, the Peace Corps had weathered a national scandal over decades of negligent response to sexual violence against volunteers, and Congress had just passed an act reforming the institutional response. "In a lot of those situations you think you’re immune and it’s not going to happen to you," she says. "I thought that I wasn’t vulnerable, that I wouldn’t put myself in that position."
And then she got sick. "My symptoms sounded like a routine UTI. Then I started to get worse. They called me into the capital city. They told me I had pelvic inflammatory disease that is usually caused by an STD going untreated." She broke down and told the doctor she had been raped.
"Victim-blaming was never an issue," says Carcano. "Every staff member that I dealt with that knew of the assault made sure to let me know that it was not my fault, that I did nothing wrong, that they were going to do their best to help me in whatever capacity." The Peace Corps is supporting Lautenberg's policy change to cover abortion in cases of rape.
One morning shortly after she had submitted to a battery of tests, the Peace Corps doctor asked Carcano to sit down before she gave the test results. But she said she immediately knew. "I just said, I'm pregnant," she says. "That was still another thing that I couldn’t believe. To finally tell the story and then start to heal and then an additional blow."
As she processed her feelings and started the counseling process, she was clear on one thing. "I was very adamant from the beginning that I was going to not go through the pregnancy. I wanted it over with. I wanted it done." That's when she was told that when it came to the abortion, she would mostly be on her own.
"I was frustrated by it but it didn't really shock me, considering the politics of abortion," she says. She didn't want to tell her parents (she since has). Her brother, though he drove down from North Carolina, didn't have much disposable income as a graduate student. But a Peace Corps volunteer who came to stay with her and provide her company before her medical evaluation told his mother back home about the rape.
"She ended up getting my brother’s address and sending me a check to pay for the procedure," says Carcano. "She said it was the last thing I should worry about. I was lucky to have that, that support from a woman that had never met me before."
She felt similarly supported by the gynecologist she saw before her abortion. "She asked me why I wanted to get an abortion. I told her what happened and she sat me down in her office and had this whole talk with me about being pro-choice, and rape. And she had said that she had just written a letter to a senator about allowing the federal government to provide funds for abortion in case of the military. She had been protesting and rallying for that. She let me know, I fight for you, I’m on your side. It was really comforting to know someone was."
After the abortion, says Carcano, "I felt like I had my body back. It was helping me feel more complete in myself." Unfortunately, a few months after her return to Peru, she and a friend were drugged and sexually assaulted by an employee in the hostel where they were staying. They reported it to the police and the staff member was arrested, but the Peruvian police eventually dropped the charges, saying there was no physical evidence. After that, Carcano cut her stay short. "My biggest regret is not being able to finish my service," she says now. "I think that also speaks to the organization in itself, that it's a great experience."