More than 50 women have accused Ebola aid workers from the World Health Organization and leading NGOs UNICEF, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, World Vision, ALIMA, and the International Organization for Migration of sexual exploitation and abuse in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the 2018-202 Ebola crisis.
The investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation revealed that 51 women – many of whose accounts were backed up by aid agency drivers and local NGO workers – recounted multiple incidents of abuse during the 2018 to 2020 Ebola crisis, mainly by men
The majority of the women said numerous men had either propositioned them, forced them to have sex in exchange for a job, or terminated their contracts when they refused. The number and similarity of many of the accounts from women in the eastern city of Beni suggest the practice was widespread.
Some women said they were plied with drinks, others said they were ambushed in offices and hospitals, and some said they were locked in rooms by men who promised jobs or threatened to fire them if they did not comply.
“So many women were affected by this,” said one 44-year-old woman, who told reporters that to get a job she had sex with a man who said he was a WHO worker. She and the other women spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. Some identifying details have been removed to protect their identities.
At least two women said they became pregnant.
Of the aid workers and locals who told reporters they knew about accusations of abuse, few said they reported it. Some said they were hoping to strengthen policies and programmes that were being developed to prevent and report the abuse, rather than taking an adversarial approach as whistleblowers.
Aid sector experts blamed the failures on a male-dominated operation with little funding to combat sexual abuse; income and power inequalities that opened the door to abuses; and poor communication with local residents – mirroring problems they said they had seen in numerous other emergency responses.
Only a handful of aid groups said they had received formal claims of abuse, and a local police official said his team had heard rumors, but women had not come forward. Most groups said they had practices in place to stop such abuses.
The WHO said it was investigating the allegations.
“The actions allegedly perpetrated by individuals identifying themselves as working for WHO are unacceptable and will be robustly investigated,” it said in a statement.
“The betrayal of people in the communities we serve is reprehensible,” it said, emphasizing that “we do not tolerate such behavior in any of our staff, contractors or partners”.
WHO pointed out that it had a “zero-tolerance policy with regard to sexual exploitation and abuse”