WHO to probe ‘sexual exploitation’ by support employees in DR Congo

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The World Health Organization (WHO) is committed to investigating allegations that aid workers have sexually abused and exploited women in the fight against the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The WHO and other aid workers were accused by 50 women in a joint investigation by two news agencies.

Local women were reportedly given drinks, “mugged” in hospitals, forced to have sex, and two became pregnant.

The allegations relate to the period between 2018 and March this year.

The New Humanitarian news agency and the Thomson Reuters Foundation conducted an almost year-long investigation.

WHO said the allegations would be “thoroughly investigated”.

“Anyone identified as involved will be held accountable and facing dire consequences, including immediate dismissal,” said a statement.

“The betrayal of people in the churches we serve is reprehensible.”

More than 2,000 people died in the Ebola outbreak in the DR Congo.

The WHO, which led global efforts to contain the spread of the outbreak, declared this over in June this year.

The United Nations and aid agencies previously promised zero tolerance to sexual abuse after some of their workers in other countries made similar allegations.

A spokesman for the UK Office for Foreign Affairs, Commonwealth and Development said it would scrutinize WHO findings, adding, “Sexual exploitation and abuse are utterly abhorrent. We regularly evaluate all of our partners against the highest safety standards.”

Who is the research affecting most?

Most of the allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation were directed against men, including doctors, allegedly by the WHO. At least 30 women made allegations against them, the news agencies reported.

The second highest number of allegations – made by eight women – related to men allegedly from the DRC’s Ministry of Health.

Two other UN agencies and four international charities were also named in the report.

Image rightsThomson Reuters FoundationImage descriptionThe Ebola outbreak has hit the eastern DR Congo hard

Some of the defendants were from Belgium, Burkina Faso, Canada, France, Guinea-Conakry and the Ivory Coast.

Many men refused to wear condoms and at least two women said they became pregnant as a result of the abuse, the news outlets reported.

What else did the women say?

A 25-year-old cleaning lady was quoted as saying she had been invited to a WHO doctor’s home to discuss a promotion.

“He closed the door and said to me, ‘There is a condition. We have to have sex now,'” the woman said.

“He started undressing me. I stepped back, but he pressed against me and continued undressing. I started crying and told him to stop … He didn’t stop. So I opened the door and ran out. “

Image rightsEPAImage descriptionEbola has killed more than 2,000 people in the DR Congo

In another case, a 32-year-old Ebola survivor told news outlets that she had been invited to a hotel for advice.

She was offered a soft drink in the lobby. She said she woke up naked and alone in a hotel room hours later and believed she was raped.

Why were women exploited?

Many women said they were forced to have sex in exchange for jobs. One described this as “passport to employment” and another as “they hire you with eyeballs”.

Women said they would be approached outside of supermarkets in eastern Beni City, employment placement centers and hospitals that published lists of successful candidates.

The news outlets also quoted a woman as saying that “the practice of men asking for sex has become so common that it is the only way to get a job”.

The risk of major reputational damage

Analysis by Imogen Foulkes, BBC News, Geneva

The WHO has fought the Covid-19 pandemic this year amid open hostilities from the US, which has announced it was leaving allegations that the WHO is too close to China. Now come these serious allegations.

The potential reputational damage is enormous and the WHO responded quickly and promised an immediate investigation.

It has been more than two years since humanitarian aid agencies faced their own “Me Too” moment when reports of sexual exploitation involving Oxfam workers in Haiti soon spread to multiple agencies.

All, including the WHO, are committed to zero tolerance for such abuse, stricter staff training, and adequate reporting systems for victims.

Given the allegations by the DR Congo, neither the staff training nor the reporting system appear to have worked.

So far, WHO has been criticized mainly by the United States, and the organization has been comforted by the moral and financial support of many other countries.

That support can be shaken now, just as the world needs a global public health facility that is not blaming.

Media signatureTreatment of Ebola in the war zone of the DR Congo

Related topics

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  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Ebola virus
  • World Health Organization (WHO)

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