At least 21 World Health Organization employees are believed to have committed rape, sexual abuse or sexual exploitation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during an Ebola outbreak from 2018 to 2020, an official investigation has revealed.
Employees, including many who promised jobs to vulnerable women and girls in return for sex, ranged from security guards and drivers to senior doctors, consultants and epidemiologists – both Congolese and foreign – according to the final report. a one-year independent review commissioned by WHO.
A total of 84 incidents of sexual abuse and exploitation in the Ebola zone have been reported, with victims as young as 13 years old. There were nine allegations of rape among the recorded incidents.
Some of the WHO staff even administered abortion pills to their victims when they became pregnant, according to the report.
“It is a dark day for WHO,” said agency director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The report’s findings are “a sickening betrayal of the people we serve,” he said at a press conference in Geneva on Tuesday. “We want the perpetrators to know that their actions will have serious consequences. “
WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said the agency was “humiliated, horrified and saddened” by the results.
Dr Tedros said he made 14 visits to the Ebola zone during the outbreak and was never made aware of the allegations of sexual abuse. “I probably should have asked questions,” he says.
But he did not respond directly when a reporter asked him if he intended to resign. This month, several European and African countries announced that they had appointed him for a second five-year term starting in May.
One of the allegations of sexual abuse was known within the WHO as of May 2, 2019, according to emails uncovered by the investigation. Yet senior WHO officials did not initiate an investigation or even request further information at the time, as they decided that the complainant was not a “recipient of WHO services”. .
Dr Tedros said the report was heartbreaking to read. He personally apologized to the victims. “I am sorry for what has been done to you by people employed by WHO to serve and protect you,” he said.
“I am sorry for the continued suffering these events must cause. I’m sorry you had to relive them while telling the commission about your experiences. Thank you for your courage to do so. What happened to you should never happen to anyone. It is inexcusable.
He said it was his “top priority” to ensure that the culprits are held to account.
Of the 21 employees identified by investigators, four were still working for the United Nations health agency this month. Their contracts have now been terminated, Dr Tedros said.
All 21 have been banned from future employment at WHO, and other UN agencies will be notified, he said. WHO is also sending evidence of the rapes to authorities in the DRC and the countries of origin of the alleged perpetrators.
In addition, two of the agency’s senior executives have been placed on administrative leave for failing to take appropriate action in response to sexual abuse complaints, and others are under investigation.
“In my opinion, the failure of WHO staff to respond adequately to reports of sexual exploitation and abuse is as serious as the events themselves,” said Dr Tedros.
The agency will take steps to improve the selection, recruitment, training and standards of behavior of its staff, starting with leaders and managers, he said.
Victims believed WHO workers would have impunity for their abuses, the report said. While the investigation found 75 alleged victims of abuse, there was “a complete absence of reports of sexual exploitation and abuse at the institutional level during the reporting period,” the report said. “The consequences of reporting may be seen as too negative for any benefit it would bring. “
During the Ebola outbreak, the WHO was “not at all prepared” to deal with the risks of sexual exploitation and abuse, according to the report.
Among the many cases he describes, that of an expatriate WHO epidemiologist who exploited a young nurse’s desperation for a better paying job. He told her that she “had to become his girlfriend” to get it, according to the report. She rejected his advances and did not get the job.
Another expatriate epidemiologist repeatedly told an employee that he would have her fired if she refused to have sex with him. When she finally gave in to threats and got pregnant, he gave her abortion pills, according to the report.
The abuse was first reported in September 2020 by reporters from The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Their investigation, citing reports from 51 women, found that sexual abuse and exploitation was perpetrated by men from WHO and other aid agencies, including UNICEF, Oxfam, World Vision and Doctors. Without limits.
WHO has called for an investigation to be opened by an independent commission, headed by Aichatou Mindaoudou, a former minister in the government of Niger, and Julienne Lusenge, a human rights activist in the DRC. The co-chairs appointed three other members, including Carol Doucet, a Canadian expert on women’s rights and sexual abuse.
Paula Donovan, co-director of the independent group AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue campaign, which seeks to end impunity for sexual offenses committed by UN staff, said WHO would not had to be allowed to choose experts to investigate wrongdoing itself.
“WHO is still deciding if, when and in what cases to alert the police and the courts,” Donovan said in a statement on Tuesday.
“This is not justice for the victims. UN member governments must immediately order all UN bureaucrats to step down and allow a good faith criminal investigation to begin.
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