More than 50 women have accused Ebola humanitarian workers of the World Health Organization (WHO) and several humanitarian NGOs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo of sexual exploitation and abuse, according to an investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The UN agency has announced an investigation.
The Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo declares the end of the second most serious Ebola outbreak in history
In the interviews, 51 women, many of whose accounts were backed by humanitarian organization drivers and local NGO workers, recounted multiple abuses, mainly by men who claimed to be international workers, during the response to the Ebola crisis from 2018 to 2020 east of the country. The outbreak, which ended in June After a long and complex fight against the virus, it is considered the worst in the country’s history and the second most serious in the world.
Most report that they had been made propositions, forced to have sex in exchange for work, or had their contracts terminated when they refused.
According to the research, carried out over almost a year, women have described at least 30 cases of exploitation by men who claimed to be WHO workers. The United Nations agency sent more than 1,500 people to the government-led operation to control the outbreak in the country.
Eight women accuse men who claimed to be part of the Congolese Ministry of Health; five denounce abuses by men who said they worked for World Vision and three, by men who said they were from the United Nations Children’s Fund, Unicef. Two women accuse men who said they were workers for the medical organization ALIMA. Individually, there were also those who pointed to men who said they worked with Oxfam, the UN migration agency, IOM, and Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
According to the Thompson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian, the number and similarity of many of the women’s accounts in the eastern city of Beni suggest that the practice was widespread. Three organizations pledged to investigate the allegations discovered. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for the allegations to be “thoroughly investigated.”
Some women detailed that the men gave them alcohol and that some of them were ambushed in offices and hospitals. Others, they indicated, were locked in rooms by men who promised them jobs or threatened to fire them if they did not obey.
A 44-year-old woman, who claims that to get a job she had sex with a man who claimed to be a WHO worker, said that “many women were affected by this.” Like her, the interviewees spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Many of those affected explain that they had never reported abuses for fear or reprisals of losing their jobs. Most also say they feel ashamed.
Some were cooks, cleaners and community workers on short-term contracts, earning between $ 50 and $ 100 a month, more than double the normal salary. One of the women was an Ebola survivor seeking psychological help. At least two of the women said they became pregnant.
According to the interviewees, most of the sexual encounters took place in hotels that functioned as UN and NGO office centers. Many of the women said it was more common for Congolese workers to ask for money in exchange for work rather than sex.
WHO will investigate the allegations
The WHO and most of the organizations involved say they have policies in place to prevent and report abuse or exploitation, from staff training to hotlines.
Most of the interviewees claimed to be unaware of the mechanisms for reporting abuse. According to David Gressly, a former UN Ebola response coordinator, a year after the operation began, a program to protect against sexual abuse was launched. Critics consider that the reported cases reflect the failure of such programs in humanitarian operations, which were underfunded and dominated by men, with few women in decision-making.
The World Health Organization announced Tuesday that it will investigate these allegations, which it describes as “unacceptable.” In a statement, it notes that its leaders and staff are “outraged” and that anyone “identified as involved will be held accountable and face serious consequences, including immediate dismissal.”
Other accused entities, such as Alima, have initiated internal investigations to clarify the facts. UNICEF received three reports involving two partner organizations responding to Ebola, according to Ebola spokesman Jean-Jacques Simon, who declined to name them. He also said the cases appeared to be different from those revealed in the report. “Despite our best efforts, cases of sexual exploitation and abuse in the Democratic Republic of the Congo remain underreported,” she says.
Spokesmen for IOM, MSF, UNICEF and the Congolese Ministry of Health said in mid-September that they were unaware of the allegations, the investigation shows. Several said they would need more information to take action.
Oxfam, for its part, states that it does “everything in our power to prevent misconduct and investigate and act on allegations when they occur, including supporting survivors.”