2021-09-29 05:41:28 W.H.O. Workers Abused Women on Mission in Congo, Inquiry Finds

W.H.O. Workers Abused Women on Mission in Congo, Inquiry Finds

Doctors and other World Health Organization personnel working to provide aid during an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo sexually abused or exploited women and girls, according to a commission appointed by the agency’s head on Tuesday.

The agency’s director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, apologized directly to the victims, who are said to number in the dozens, and promised to implement “wholesale reform of policies and processes” to address exploitation and abuse in the organization. He stated that the agency was terminating the contracts of four people identified as perpetrators who were still employed by the agency and that allegations of rape would be referred to authorities in Congo and the home countries of those accused of misconduct.

Dr. Tedros described the Ebola response from 2018 to 2020 as “a large and complex operation in a highly insecure region requiring large-scale recruitment of local and international personnel.” “However, none of this justifies sexual exploitation and abuse. We acknowledge that we should have taken more stringent measures to screen our candidates and ensure more efficient human resource processes.”

According to the report, the commission’s investigators were able to identify 83 people believed to be involved in the abuse, including both Congolese nationals and foreigners. The investigators were able to establish with certainty that those suspected of abuse were W.H.O. employees in 21 cases.

The 35-page report cited “clear structural failures” in the way the agency handled allegations of misconduct. It painted a picture of an organization obsessed with bureaucracy and ruminating on abuse allegations’ technicalities, such as who would qualify for legal protection against exploitation and whether an accusation should be investigated if a written complaint had not been filed.

The commission discovered that women were promised jobs in exchange for relationships or were sexually abused in order to keep their jobs. The report cited the stories of women such as Nadira, an archivist who worked in Beni.

“You had to have sex to advance in the job,” she told investigators. “Everyone exchanged sex for something. It was quite common. I was even offered sex if I wanted to get a basin of water in the base camp where we were staying to wash myself.”

The report emphasized the power disparity between employees of international organizations such as the World Health Organization and the people they serve. It stated that “during the response, the majority of the alleged victims were in a very precarious economic or social situation.”

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

The investigation was launched after The New Humanitarian, a nonprofit news organization based in Geneva, and the Thomson Reuters Foundation published the findings of a yearlong investigation in September 2020, in which 30 of 51 women interviewed reported being exploited by men identified as working for the World Health Organization on the Ebola outbreak beginning in 2018.

The exploitation and abuse reports drew new attention to the United Nations’ struggles with the decades-old problem of sexual exploitation by peacekeeping troops, which first surfaced in conflicts in Bosnia in the 1990s and more recently in places like the Central African Republic and Haiti.

The 51 women interviewed all told investigating journalists that they were pressured to provide sex to employees of the World Health Organization and other international aid organizations, as well as the Congolese Health Ministry. When they were looking for work, they were subjected to pressure, and on occasion, the men terminated the contracts of those who refused, according to the women.

Employees of the Health Ministry allegedly exploited eight women. Others reported encounters with men from charity organizations such as World Vision, UNICEF, and ALIMA, a medical organization.

According to the report, Dr. Tedros was only made aware of the allegations after they were made public. At a news conference on Tuesday to announce the report’s release, he was asked if he would consider resigning because of the seriousness of the allegations and because he was overseeing the response to the outbreak and was on site numerous times.

“This was not brought up to me,” he said. “Perhaps I should have asked more questions. And the next step, what we’re doing, is asking questions.”

Dr. Tedros stated that the agency was “taking immediate steps” to determine why the abuse had not been detected and stopped.

The lack of transparency in the recruitment process for new employees to combat the Ebola outbreak was one factor cited by the commission as creating the conditions for exploitation and abuse.

The virus response, like the coronavirus response in the United States and around the world, necessitated the hiring of a large number of new workers. This, according to the report, was a boon to the many young people looking for work. However, the hiring process was not competitive.

“Local workers — who made up more than half of the World Health Organization personnel serving in North Kivu province — were recruited without competitive bidding,” according to the report, “thus opening the door to possible abuses, including incidents of exploitation and sexual abuse, which have unfortunately been witnessed.”

In addition, the report cited “late and insufficient” training on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse in response to the Ebola crisis. The first such training session took place in November 2019, five months after the outbreak was declared a global public health emergency. The report also discovered that only 371 of the organization’s staff members — out of the more than 2,800 deployed during the outbreak — had attended the training session.

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W.H.O. Workers Abused Women on Mission in Congo, Inquiry Finds