An independent investigation commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified more than 80 alleged cases of sexual abuse during the global health agency’s response to an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), including allegations implicating 20 staff members.
The 35-page report released on Tuesday exposed the most widescale sexual wrongdoing linked to a United Nations institution in years, committed by personnel hired locally as well as members of international teams in the country from 2018 to 2020.
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It described how “Jolianne” – said to be the youngest of the alleged victims – had recounted that a WHO driver had stopped to offer her a ride home as she sold phone cards on a roadside in the town of Mangina in April 2019.
“Instead, he took her to a hotel where she says she was raped by this person,” the report said. Alleged victims “were not provided with the necessary support and assistance required for such degrading experiences”.
Malick Coulibaly, a member of the independent panel, said during a media briefing that there were nine allegations of rape. The women interviewed said the perpetrators used no birth control, resulting in some pregnancies. Some women said the men who had abused them forced them to have abortions, Coulibaly said.
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The commission interviewed dozens of women who were offered work in exchange for sex, or who were victims of rape.
The investigators were able to obtain the identity of 83 alleged perpetrators, both Congolese nationals and foreigners. In 21 cases, the review team was able to establish with certainty that the alleged perpetrators were WHO employees during the Ebola response.
Their report painted a grim picture, citing “clear structural failures” and “individual negligence”. It noted “the scale of incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse in the response to the 10th Ebola outbreak, all of which contributed to the increased vulnerability of ‘alleged victims’ who were not provided with the necessary support and assistance required for such degrading experiences”.
It also decried belated training for staffers to prevent sexual abuse or exploitation, a refusal from managers to consider cases that were only provided verbally and not in writing, and other breakdowns and managerial shortcomings in handling the alleged misdeeds in nine separate cities or villages in the region.
Passy Mulabama, founder and executive director of the Action and Development Initiative for the Protection of Women and Children in the DRC (AIDPROFEN), said the findings were “unacceptable.”
“The DRC has been affected by conflicts for so many years … and it’s just unacceptable that humanitarians can still be responsible for sexual assault and sexual exploitation of women and children,” Mulabama told Al Jazeera.
“[The people] who are responsible for this exploitation and abuse have to be punished for what they’ve done,” she said.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the document “harrowing” reading and offered his apology to the victims and survivors.
“It is my top priority that the perpetrators are not excused but held [to] account,” he told a news conference.
Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, said the agency was “heartbroken” by the findings.
“We in the WHO are indeed humbled, horrified and heartbroken by the findings of this inquiry,” she said.
“We apologise to these people, to the women and the girls, for the suffering they have had because of the actions of our staff members and people that we have sent into their communities,” she added.
Tedros appointed the panel’s co-chairs to investigate the claims last October after media reports said unnamed humanitarian officials sexually abused women during the Ebola outbreak that began in the DRC in 2018.
At the time, the WHO chief declared he was “outraged” and pledged that any staffers connected to the abuse would be dismissed immediately.
Reports quoting Western diplomatic sources said four people have been fired and two placed on administrative leave, based on a closed-door briefing involving WHO that was provided to diplomatic officials in Geneva.
Julie Londo, a member of the Congolese Union of Media Women (UCOFEM), a women’s organisation that works to counter rape and sexual abuse of women in the DRC, applauded WHO for punishing staffers involved in the abuse allegations but said more was needed.
“WHO must also think about reparation for the women who were traumatized by the rapes and the dozens of children who were born with unwanted pregnancies as a result of the rapes,” she said.
“There are a dozen girls in Butembo and Beni who had children with doctors during the Ebola epidemic, but today others are sent back by their families because they had children with foreigners … We will continue our fight to end these abuses.”