A 43-year-old woman arrived for an interview for a job at the World Health Organization to raise community awareness about Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was at the end of 2018. The epidemic was the largest there 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.
This is one of the ‘heartbreaking’ stories of a recently released report into what is known as a sex-for-work scandal as hundreds of aid workers rush to remote villages in the eastern part of the Republic. Democratic Republic of the Congo.
They left behind broken lives, unwanted pregnancies and broken promises, according to a recently 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 full and impartial investigation of its own staff.
The allegations of ill-treatment were first published in September 2020 by The new humanitarian in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
World Health Organization officials say they knew nothing about 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 Ebola epidemic from 2018 to 2020 in the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, in eastern Congo.
The sex abuse scandal is one of the largest ever documented in the United Nations system.
The commission documented 83 allegations of abuse, including 9 rape allegations, and verified that at least 21 of the alleged perpetrators were employed by the WHO during the Ebola response. The report states: “The majority of the alleged perpetrators were Congolese personnel hired on a temporary basis who took advantage of their apparent authority to obtain sexual favors. But among the alleged perpetrators were also highly qualified international staff, including doctors, consultants and administrators. In an incident cited in the report, a woman employed on the Ebola monitoring commission in Butembo, said her boss, a doctor working for the WHO, asked her to give her sex or half of her. monthly salary to keep your job. She paid for it.
The report also cites incidents that went beyond sex for employment. In 2019, a 13-year-old girl was selling phone cards by the roadside in the town of Mangina, in the province of North Kivu in the DRC. She told WHO commission investigators that a WHO driver offered to drive her home. He drove her to a local hotel, she said, where he raped her. The assault left her pregnant.
“We at the WHO are indeed humiliated, horrified and heartbroken by the findings of this investigation,” said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, when the commission’s report was released.
“I would like to say that as leaders of WHO, we apologize to the women and girls for the suffering they have suffered because of the actions of our staff members and the people we have sent to their homes. communities to help them in a very difficult situation of an epidemic, ”said Moeti.
At the press conference to release the report this week, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who visited the DRC response effort 14 times during the outbreak, said he was taking responsibility the “behavior of the people we employ and any failures in our systems that allowed that behavior.” And I will take personal responsibility for making the necessary changes to prevent this from happening again in the future. “
WHO had nearly 2,800 staff and contractors working in eastern Congo during the Ebola outbreak. Some were eminent experts in infectious diseases. Some were day laborers.
The scandal unfolded as the WHO battled an Ebola outbreak raging in a remote and conflict-torn part of one of the world’s poorest countries. Of the 3,481 reported cases of hemorrhagic fever during the crisis, 2,299 people died.
Staff from WHO, DRC’s health ministry and other humanitarian groups were working frantically to try to contain the deadly virus. Sometimes they faced great mistrust from the local community.
WHO has reported hundreds of attacks on health workers and medical facilities during the operation, which lasted for almost 2 years.
“Eleven people died and eighty-six were injured in these attacks,” said the commission’s report, “which in some cases led to the temporary or permanent suspension of activities in Ebola treatment centers.”
This backdrop of conflict was cited in the report as a factor in the lack of response to the allegations. A senior WHO official told the commission he did not immediately notify his superiors in Geneva of a doctor who allegedly impregnated a young woman with HIV 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 staff deployed to Congo by WHO were “completely unaware” of how to handle the situation. sexual exploitation and abuse. The report adds that “the teams deployed in the field by the Organization were inherently devoid of any capacity to manage the risks of sexual exploitation and abuse that could arise during their operations”.
And the potential for abuse was high. In two years, the operation will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to contain the epidemic. In a part of the world where jobs are scarce and wages often less than a dollar or two a day, the WHO and others were hiring locals at rates ranging from $ 10 to $ 150 a day.
The international response to the epidemic has attracted job seekers from across eastern Congo. A young woman interviewed by the commission in Mangina said the buzz about the recruitment efforts was all over town, even at the Ebola funeral.
And it was no secret that women were pressured to trade sex for jobs, promotions, and even relief supplies. A young woman from the town of Beni who worked with the WHO as an archivist and later with the logistics commission told commission investigators that it was common knowledge that moving forward requires having connections. sexual. “Everyone has had sex in exchange for something,” she said. “It was very common.” She said she was even asked to have sex when she tried to get bath water at a base camp for aid workers where she was staying.
WHO fired four of the alleged perpetrators this week, and a WHO lawyer said none of the 17 other WHO employees identified in the report are still working for the global health body. So far, no criminal charges have been filed despite the commission and reporters uncovering numerous allegations of rape, coercion and other crimes.
Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS Free World, has for years called for an end to impunity for sexual abuse by United Nations personnel. Donovan calls the new WHO commission report a “sham criminal investigation.” She says the WHO should not investigate allegations of serious crimes against the organization and its employees.
The WHO says the report comes from an “independent commission” even though the commission was convened and funded by the WHO.
“WHO controls the telling of this story from start to finish,” Donovan said. What WHO management knew or did not know about sex crimes committed by its own employees is not something WHO should investigate, she says: “It is something that external professionals do. , truly independent and impartial people who are hired by governments and have the legal authority to investigate crimes should be reviewed. ”
She says that nowhere else “in the rest of the universe” can an employer investigate the alleged criminal activities of its own employees.
It has been a year since the allegations of rape and other widespread abuse were made public by journalists. And almost 3 years since some of the alleged crimes took place.
Donovan says the UN staff accountability process is not 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, compile a full report with other rape allegations before anyone even suggests that the police will be involved and that the rapist will be investigated, ”Donovan said. “It’s just amazing.”