Geneva: The Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has initiated an investigation of the specific allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by people identifying themselves as working for WHO in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Speaking to the global media during the online media briefing from Geneva, Dr. Tedros said, “I want to address some of the disturbing news from the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, regarding reports of alleged sexual exploitation and abuse by people identifying themselves as working for WHO. To be very clear, we are outraged to read these reports.
WHO works around the world in the toughest emergency environments and situations. We come to save lives and spread hope. The betrayal of people in the communities we serve is reprehensible. We will not tolerate behavior like this from our staff, contractors, or partners. Anyone identified as being involved will be held to account and face serious consequences, including immediate dismissal, the DG further asserted.
“I have initiated an investigation of the specific allegations, as well as broader protection issues in health emergency response settings. WHO has a zero-tolerance policy with regard to sexual exploitation and abuse. I take these reports very seriously and I will have more to say on this very soon,” Dr. Tedros assured the reporters
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.