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WHO Investigating Sexual Abuse Allegations in Congo Ebola Response

FILE - Health workers dressed in protective gear begin their shift at an Ebola treatment center in Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 16, 2019.
FILE - Health workers dressed in protective gear begin their shift at an Ebola treatment center in Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 16, 2019.

The World Health Organization announced Tuesday it would investigate newly released reports of alleged sexual exploitation and abuse against Congolese individuals perpetrated by the WHO’s Ebola aid workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A year-long investigation by the New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation included interviews with 51 women who recounted several instances of abuse during the 2018 to 2020 Ebola crisis — mainly by men who self-identified as working for the WHO.

The investigation also identified abuses by members of the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Medecins Sans Frontieres, Oxfam, World Vision, the U.S. migration agency IOM, the medical charity ALIMA and Congo’s health ministry.

The majority of accounts said that numerous men frequently plied women with drinks and either had propositioned them, forced them to have sex in exchange for a job, or terminated their contracts when they refused.

Some women were hired on short-term contracts and promised salaries more than twice the standard wage in the area. There were also accounts of women being locked in rooms by men who solicited jobs or threatened to terminate their employment if they did not comply.

Approximately 80% of survivors globally do not report sexual assault. The abuses in the Congo were no different. A survey that was a part of the investigation found that 18 agencies involved in the Ebola response said they received no reports of sexual exploitation.

Most women who participated in the investigation said they were unaware of how to report instances of sexual exploitation or abuse.

Half a dozen senior U.N. officials and NGO workers confirmed that sex-for-jobs schemes were rampant in the DRC during relief efforts. Officials also confirmed that several strategies implemented to target sexual exploitation in the area largely failed.

Aid sector experts say the male-dominated Ebola response team, along with vast income and power imbalances and a failure to win locals’ trust, were to blame for the years of abuse during the crisis. Approximately 81% of Ebola responders working for WHO were men, according to a 2019 report.

Experts say that involving more women in the emergency response system is an important first step in changing the power dynamics of aid delivery.

Previous investigations into similar problems in emergency response efforts found that such abuses also occurred in places such as Bosnia, Haiti and the Central African Republic.

Several agencies deployed thousands of aid workers into the eastern Congo in 2018 when Ebola erupted in the area, costing some $700 million. A network to prevent sex abuse was not set up until 14 months into the crisis, according to an internal report by the interagency Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Network.

A WHO spokeswoman told investigators it was reviewing a “small number” of sexual abuse or exploitation reports in the Congo and encouraged the women involved to contact the organization directly.

Women alleging instances of abuse said that there was little hope for justice. Many say they could not come forward out of fear of retribution by employers or being stigmatized by family or their communities.