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World Health Organization Says Its Staff Perpetrated “Harrowing” Sexual Abuse In Congo

29September 2021

A report issued by the World Health Organization this week detailed 83 allegations of sexual abuse by its employees during the Ebola crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo that started in 2018. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called it a “dark day” for the U.N. body.

Fabrice Coffrini /AFP via Getty Images

Fabrice Coffrini /AFP via Getty Images

A 43-year-old woman arrived at an interview for a job with the World Health Organization to raise community awareness about Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was late 2018. The outbreak there was the largest since the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa.

She says the interviewer told her she could only get the job in exchange for sex. When she refused, she says, the man raped her.

That’s one of the “harrowing” stories in a newly released report on what’s being called a sex-for-jobs scandal as hundreds of aid workers rushed into remote villages in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

They left behind broken lives, unwanted pregnancies and broken promises, according to a newly released report. “Harrowing” was the word used by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to describe the accounts. He called it a “dark day” for the World Health Organization.

The report itself is controversial, with some critics questioning whether the World Health Organization can conduct a thorough and fair-minded investigation of its own staff.

The allegations of mistreatment were first published in September 2020 by The New Humanitarian in conjunction with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

World Health Organization officials say they knew nothing about the dozens of allegations of sexual abuse against WHO staff until after the New Humanitarian article. WHO then convened a commission to investigate and prepare a report on allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse during the 2018 to 2020 Ebola outbreak in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces of eastern Congo.

The sexual abuse scandal is one of the largest ever documented in the United Nations system.

The commission documented 83 allegations of abuse, including 9 allegations of rape, and verified that at least 21 of the alleged perpetrators were employed by WHO during the Ebola response. The report states: “The majority of the alleged perpetrators were Congolese staff hired on a temporary basis who took advantage of their apparent authority to obtain sexual favours.” But among the alleged perpetrators were also highly-trained, international staff including doctors, consultants and administrators. In one incident cited in the report, a woman employed at the Ebola surveillance commission in Butembo, says her boss, a doctor working for WHO, demanded that she give him sex or half her monthly salary to keep her job. She paid him.

The report also cites incidents that went beyond sex-for-jobs. In 2019, a 13-year-old girl was selling cellphone airtime cards by the side of the road in the town of Mangina in the North Kivu province of the DRC. She told investigators from the WHO’s commission that a WHO driver offered her a ride home. He drove her to a local hotel, she says, where he raped her. The assault left her pregnant.

“We in WHO are indeed humbled, horrified and heartbroken by the findings of this inquiry,” said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, during the release of the commission’s report.

“I’d like to indicate that as WHO leadership we apologize to the women and the girls for the suffering they have had because of the actions of our staff members and people that we have sent into their communities to help in a very difficult situation of an epidemic,” Moeti said.

At the press conference to release the report this week WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who visited the response effort in DRC 14 times during the outbreak, said that he takes responsibility for “the behavior of the people we employ and for any failings in our systems that allowed this behavior. And I will take personal responsibility for making whatever changes we need to make to prevent this happening in future.”

WHO had nearly 2,800 staff members and contractors working in eastern Congo over the course of the Ebola outbreak. Some were leading infectious disease experts. Some were day laborers.

The scandal unfolded as WHO was battling a raging Ebola outbreak in a remote, conflict-torn part of one of the poorest countries in the world. Of the 3,481 reported cases of the hemorrhagic fever during the crisis, 2,299 people died.

Staff from WHO, the DRC Ministry of Health and other humanitarian groups were working frantically to try to contain the deadly virus. At times they faced high levels of distrust from the local community.

WHO reported hundreds of attacks on health-care workers and medical facilities during the nearly 2-year-long operation.

“Eleven people died and eighty-six were injured in these attacks,” the commission’s report says, “which in some cases led to the temporary or permanent suspension of activities at Ebola treatment centres.”

That backdrop of conflict was cited in the report as a factor in lack of response to the allegations. One high-ranking WHO official told the commission that he failed to immediately inform his superiors in Geneva about a doctor who’d allegedly gotten a young, HIV-positive woman pregnant because the official was busy dealing with the murder of one of his colleagues.

Despite high-profile incidents of sexual abuse during other United Nations response missions in the past, the commission found that the staff deployed to Congo by WHO were “completely unaware” of how to manage sexual exploitation and abuse. The report adds “the teams deployed in the field by the Organisation were inherently lacking in any capacity to manage the risks of sexual exploitation and abuse that might arise during their operations.”

And the potential for abuse was high. Over the course of two years, the operation would spend hundreds of millions of dollars to contain the outbreak. In a part of the world where jobs are scarce and salaries were often less than a dollar or two per day, WHO and others were recruiting locals at rates ranging from $10 to $150 per day.

The international response to the outbreak attracted job seekers from all over eastern Congo. One young woman interviewed by the commission in Mangina said buzz about the recruitment efforts was all over town — even at Ebola funerals.

And it was no secret that women were being pressured to trade sex for jobs, promotions and even relief supplies. A young woman in the town of Beni who worked with WHO as an archivist and later with the logistics commission told the commission’s investigators that it was common knowledge that to get ahead, you had to have sex. “Everyone had sex in exchange for something,” she said. “It was very common.” She said she was even asked for sex when trying to get bathwater at a base camp for aid workers where she was staying.

WHO fired four of the alleged perpetrators this week, and a WHO lawyer says none of the other 17 WHO employees identified in the report still work for the global health body. So far no criminal charges have been filed despite the commission and journalists uncovering numerous allegations of rape, coercion and other crimes.

Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS Free World, has been calling for an end to impunity for sexual abuse by U.N. personnel for years. Donovan calls the new report from the WHO’s commission a “sham criminal investigation.” She says WHO should not be investigating allegations of serious crimes leveled against the organization and its employees.

WHO says the report is from an “independent commission” even though the commission was convened and funded by WHO.

“WHO is controlling the narrative of this story from beginning to end,” Donovan says. What WHO management knew or didn’t know about sex crimes being committed by its own employees is not something that WHO should investigate, she says: “It’s something that external, truly independent, unbiased professionals who are hired by governments and have the legal authority to investigate crimes should be looking into.”

She says that nowhere else “in the rest of the universe” does an employer get to spearhead the investigation into alleged criminal activity by its own employees.

It’s been a year since the allegations of a widespread pattern of rape and other abuse were made public by journalists. And nearly 3 years since some of the alleged crimes occurred.

Donovan says the process to hold U.N. staff accountable isn’t working.

“Imagine in the industrialized world if a woman reported rape. She told a reporter about it. It appeared in the newspaper. She names her rapist. And then she has to wait a year until the powers that be, in this case the employer, compiles an entire report with other allegations of rape before anyone even hints that the police will be involved and that the rapist will be investigated,” Donovan says. “It’s just extraordinary.”

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