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Report details sexual abuse allegations against WHO staffers during Congo Ebola outbreak

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Lyon, France, on Sept. 27. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

An independent probe commissioned by the World Health Organization found evidence to support allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation carried out by WHO staffers responding to an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to a report issued Tuesday that the WHO chief called “harrowing reading.”

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus pledged to overhaul the public health body’s policies on sexual abuse.

The report identified dozens of potential victims of sexual exploitation and abuse and 83 alleged perpetrators, including 21 who were employed by WHO as part of the response to an Ebola outbreak in Congo from August 2018 to June 2020. It paints a grim picture of male WHO doctors, consultants, drivers and other staffers coercing mostly young women into having sex in exchange for the promise of jobs — and the failure of WHO officials to prevent and investigate such incidents.

“This is a dark day for WHO,” Tedros said at a news conference Tuesday.

He apologized to victims and thanked them for sharing their stories, pledging to hold the alleged perpetrators to account. The WHO will also refer rape allegations to authorities in Congo and in alleged perpetrators’ home countries.

Most of the identified alleged perpetrators were Congolese staffers hired on a temporary basis, according to the report. But allegations of sexual abuse and harassment were also made against WHO doctors, consultants and senior staffers, some of whom were foreigners. The report did not identify the countries. Medical staffers deployed by Congo’s Health Ministry also faced accusations.

“As the director general, I take ultimate responsibility for the behavior of the people we employ and for any failings in our systems that allowed this behavior,” Tedros said. “And I will take personal responsibility for making whatever changes we need to make to prevent this happening in future.”

Some of the allegations were brought to light in September 2020 in an investigation by the New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation that detailed the accounts of more than 50 women in the city of Beni who accused Ebola aid workers from the WHO and other relief organizations of sexual exploitation and abuse. The other organizations included UNICEF, World Vision, the medical charity Alima, Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders, some of which launched their own internal inquiries.

The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation in May published a second investigation of allegations in the city of Butembo. Their report noted that several aid workers had been dismissed after their first investigation, including one Oxfam worker who allegedly raped a woman in Beni. Alima said in May it had not uncovered any allegations.

Tedros convened an independent panel to probe the allegations in October 2020. Tuesday’s report marked the culmination of a year-long investigation.

The alleged abuse unfolded in the context of a major Ebola epidemic in eastern Congo that became an international public health emergency. The hemorrhagic fever infected nearly 3,500 people and killed about 2,300. Significant humanitarian needs and a burst of violent attacks, often against health workers, compounded the crisis.

The international community mobilized to respond to the outbreak, with the WHO alone deploying 2,800 people.

Health workers at an Ebola treatment center in Beni, Congo, in July 2019. (Jerome Delay/AP)

The report lays out how men who said they worked with the WHO allegedly exploited the economic vulnerability of victims by promising them jobs in exchange for sexual relationships or making sex a condition of continued employment.

One woman said she was coerced into sex by a WHO expatriate doctor, became pregnant and was given abortion pills. Another woman told investigators she was promised a job as a hygienist if she gave in to the advances of a response administrator in Butembo — and said she needed the money to support her four children. Another woman said sex was frequently exchanged for favors at a response base camp in Beni.

A woman who said she was pressured into sex by a WHO doctor in 2019 stands near her home in Beni, Congo, in March. (Kudra Maliro/AP)

The investigators received testimony from 75 alleged victims — 63 women and 12 men — who ranged in age from 13 to 43 years, with an average age of around 20. The youngest, a girl identified as “Jolianne,” said she was approached by a WHO driver who offered her a ride home and instead raped and impregnated her.

In many cases, according to the report, promised jobs never materialized. Other women who were already employed said they continued to be sexually harassed by male supervisors who forced them to have sex to hold on to their jobs. Some said they were fired when they refused.

The review team recorded nine allegations of rape. Twenty-nine women and girls became pregnant as a result of the alleged abuse and 22 carried their pregnancies to term, the report said. Other alleged victims said their abusers had forced them to have an abortion, while others claimed to have had miscarriages.

Not all of the potential victims have been identified. Tedros pledged Tuesday that the United Nations will provide medical and psychosocial support, as well as help with educating their children.

The commission blamed the WHO for inadequately screening staffers it had recruited for the Ebola response and pointed to broader, structural problems with the WHO’s approach to preventing and investigating sexual abuse.

In one example, the report criticized officials’ failure to open an investigation of an allegation against Jean-Paul Ngandu, a doctor who was the subject of a recent Associated Press investigation. The report cited Andreas Mlitzke, head of the agency’s compliance, risk management and ethics divisions, and David Webb, director of the internal oversight office, as not upholding the WHO’s zero-tolerance policy for sexual exploitation and abuse.

The report does not place any personal responsibility on Tedros, WHO Africa director Matshidiso Moeti or Michael Ryan, director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, saying they were unaware of the allegations until they saw media reports.

Tedros said the WHO will investigate and take “appropriate disciplinary action.” Two senior staffers have been placed on administrative leave.

This is not the first sexual abuse scandal a U.N. body has faced in recent years. A report in 2019 found that U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti allegedly fathered children with women and girls before abandoning them, and rape allegations roiled a peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic.

Tedros promised a “wholesale reform of policies and processes to address sexual exploitation and abuse.”

“We are acutely conscious that we need to rebuild trust with the people we serve, with our member states, with our partners and with our workforce,” Tedros said. “Only then can we succeed in our mission to promote health, keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable.”

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