‘Heartbroken and horrified’: WHO staff offered women jobs in exchange for sex

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Health chief vows to take action over sexual abuse that took place during long-running Ebola outbreak in Congo

‘Heartbroken and horrified’: WHO staff offered women jobs in exchange for sex

More than 80 cases of sexual abuse – including nine accounts of rape – have been identified in a damning report into sexual exploitation perpetrated by World Health Organization staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

The report, published on Tuesday, was prompted by an investigation last year by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian in which more than 50 women accused aid workers from the WHO and other charities of sexual abuse

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO, said the report into sexual abuse and exploitation made for “harrowing reading” and he apologised to victims for his organisation’s failings.

He said the abuse was “inexcusable”.

“It is my top priority to ensure that the perpetrators are not excused, but are held to account,” he said. 

The abuse was committed by personnel hired locally as well as by members of international teams fighting an Ebola outbreak from 2018 to 2020, where more than 2,000 people died. Perpetrators went all the way from drivers and security personnel up to medical staff.

Some 83 alleged abusers were identified – 21 of whom were WHO staff. Four of these staff members were still working for WHO this month but their contracts have now been terminated, a WHO official said. 

The report found “clear structural failures and unpreparedness to manage the risks of incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse”. It also said there was a “perception of impunity” among the abusers. 

The investigators interviewed 63 women and girls, who told how they were offered jobs in exchange for sex.

The youngest victim, Jolianne, who was just 13 at the time of the abuse, told investigators she was selling phone cards at the side of the road when she was approached by a WHO driver offering her a ride home. Instead, he took her to a hotel where she said he raped her, after which she became pregnant. 

Another woman, Severine, told how she was invited to a hotel to discuss the possibility of a job on the Ebola response but once in the hotel room she was told she had to have sex with the man to get the job. She refused but said she was then raped. 

The long-running Ebola outbreak took place in the impoverished and conflict-riven North Kivu region of the DRC, where the arrival of WHO staff and aid workers created a “wage Eldorado”, the report said. 

The Ebola response attracted a great deal of attention and competition for employment was fierce. 

The report described the alleged victims as being “in a very precarious economic and social situation”. 

“Indeed, very few of them were able to complete their secondary education, and some had never set foot in school,” the report stated. 

The report found that WHO ignored some complaints because the victims were not viewed as “beneficiaries”, defined as “individuals who are direct or indirect beneficiaries of a humanitarian/emergency or other WHO action”. However, this narrow view of what constitutes abuse is counter to the organisation’s own policy on preventing and combating sexual exploitation.

The report also condemned a requirement that allegations of abuse were made in writing – one WHO official said no complaint had been made against a staff member, despite the fact a woman came to the WHO office in person to make an allegation. 

The report also found that recruitment policies were lax, with little vetting of candidates prior to them being offered jobs. 

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said she was “humbled, horrified and heartbroken” by the findings.

Dr Tedros said as director general he takes “ultimate responsibility for the behaviour of the people we employ, and for any failings in our systems that allowed this behaviour. 

“And I will take personal responsibility for making whatever changes we need to make to prevent this happening in future.”

However, when questioned by reporters he refused to say whether he would resign or withdraw his nomination for a second term as head of the WHO.

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