The World Health Organization reported Monday that progress was being made in efforts to prevent and respond to cases of sexual misconduct but acknowledged that abuse by WHO staff remained problematic.
“For the past two years, WHO has intensified our work to prevent and respond to any form of sexual misconduct, sexual exploitation, sexual harassment, said Gaya Gamhewage, director of prevention and response to sexual misconduct at WHO.
“However, the numbers are still going up for the simple reason, I believe, that all the cases have not surfaced yet. So, the numbers will keep going up for some time. But this does not mean that what we are doing is not having any effect. In fact, what we are doing is surfacing this issue, as well,” she said.
The numbers would seem to bear this out. Over the past 12 months, the WHO Office of Internal Oversight Services, or IOS, reports it has investigated 287 allegations of sexual misconduct in all WHO regions.
Gamhewage said, “WHO is working on preventing and responding to sexual misconduct related to its own workforce—our staff, our contractors, our implementing partners. This does not include numbers for peacekeepers.”
Approximately 83 of these cases are related to the 10th Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with 25% of that number pertaining to alleged abuse by WHO personnel.
According to a WHO press release, the remaining allegations were related to other agencies operating during the outbreak. The WHO received investigation reports related only to accusations against people associated with the WHO, including consultants and other contractors.
“Since 2021, we have entered the names of 25 alleged perpetrators of sexual misconduct into the U.N. Clear Check database to prevent future employment within the U.N. system,” said LisaMcClennon, IOS director.
“Several have been dismissed, including five staff members related to findings of sexual conduct during the period. And several former personnel were informed that their actions would have led to termination had they still been in service.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo announced its 10th Ebola outbreak on August 1, 2018, in the country’s volatile Eastern provinces, claiming 2,299 lives by the time WHO declared the epidemic over on June 25, 2020.
WHO created a special unit in November 2021 to address sexual misconduct to rid the organization of exploitative behavior. This was triggered by a sexual scandal which erupted during the Ebola epidemic involving many responders including peacekeepers, U.N. personnel, and contractors.
McClennon said the 83 alleged perpetrators identified in the report are connected to that 2018-2020 mission in the DRC.
“WHO has been taking required follow-up action for each of these cases, including information shared with the national authorities, referral to other U.N. agencies and issuing case closure letters to the alleged subjects,” McClennon said. “While reports are confidential, we are taking disciplinary action in the substantiated cases.”
WHO reports that the highest number of alleged sexual perpetrators are found in Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.
“We do not like to reveal which countries because we can identify alleged perpetrators and it can actually interfere with the investigation,” Gamhewage said.
The WHO official said she believed populations in these regions are highly vulnerable to sexual abuse due to the large number of countries affected by health emergencies and humanitarian crises, explaining that the large U.N. presence in these countries was in response to the enormous needs.
“We know sexual misconduct happens when there is a power differential, and that power differential is used for sexual exploitation. And this used to happen with impunity.
“But with the work we are doing, we are getting complaints and concerns raised. So, I think we should not expect numbers to go down any time soon,” Gamhewage said. “What we want is to surface all of the numbers, so Lisa [McClennon] and her team can assess which ones need to be investigated.”
Gamhewage said it was important to listen to the testimony and experience of any victim or survivor.
“What we need to do is understand there could be a risk there, and then we can start preventive action," she said.
Since it was unlikely that sexual misconduct could be completely eradicated, Gamhewage said, “What we are looking for is zero tolerance, not for zero cases.”