Rape, sex in exchange for jobs, harassment, threats, unwanted pregnancies and pressure to abort; this is what the World Health Organization’s mission left behind as it passed through Congo between 2018 and 2020 during the response to the Ebola outbreak.
According to a report conducted by an independent committee appointed by the WHO, up to 21 employees of the UN agency are involved in sexual abuse against Congolese women and girls. An accusation that has already been addressed by the agency’s head, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who apologized and promised reforms within the agency to better recruit its employees and prevent a tragedy of this magnitude from happening again.
“The first thing I want to say is to the victims and survivors of the sexual exploitation and abuse in #DRC described in the commission’s report: I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what was done to you by people who were employed by WHO to serve and protect you,” Tedros said during a conference where details of the report were revealed. “I’m sorry for the ongoing suffering that these events must cause. I’m sorry that you have had to relive them in talking to the commission about your experiences. Thank you for your courage in doing so.”
According to the report, at least some 63 women and girls were raped, sexually abused or intimidated and threatened by UN agency employees, Congolese health ministry workers or other non-governmental organizations who were allegedly in the country to help in the fight against Ebola. In total, 83 people are implicated in the allegations of abuse.
Rape, pressure to abort and constant abuse
The commission took 12 months to carry out the investigations. There are nine reports of possible rape, many women —who were in a very precarious economic situation— were offered work in exchange for sex. Those who accepted did so to help their families, they said, but the exchange was problematic: many women were not given jobs, and those who were given jobs were then forced to continue having sex or were threatened with dismissal. The victims said that they also suffered systematic harassment in their jobs and did not know how to report it.
The independent commission also denounced that, in some cases, the abuse was committed without condoms by the decision of the aggressors, resulting in unwanted pregnancies. These women were pressured and blackmailed into having abortions. Other cases of pregnancies ended in premature births, according to the reports. The report included the testimony of a 13-year-old girl who reported a rape by a WHO driver. That abuse left her pregnant.
Another woman, who worked as an archivist in Beni, in the northeast of the country, reported that even to get some water to wash where she was working, she was demanded sexual relations as a method of exchange.
Malick Coulibaly, former Justice Minister of Mali, and one of the members of the commission explained that the abuses were carried out in hotels or rented houses against mostly underprivileged women.
Coulibaly was critical of WHO, saying, “there were clear structural failures and unpreparedness to manage the risks of incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse.”
WHO was aware of the allegations: AP agency
Despite Tedros’ assurances that WHO had no direct knowledge of the abuse cases, The Associated Press (AP) agency reported that WHO’s “top management received allegations of abuse in 2019, but refused to stop the harassment and even promoted one of the managers involved.”
According to the AP, “Dr. Michel Yao, a senior WHO official overseeing the mission against the Congolese outbreak, received several written allegations of sexual abuse. Yao was promoted and ultimately headed the WHO mission against the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, which ended in June.” In addition, “WHO doctor Jean-Paul Ngandu and two other staff members signed a contract promising to buy land for a young woman whom Ngandu allegedly impregnated; the doctor said he was pressured to do so in order to protect WHO’s reputation.”
During his comments on the independent commission’s findings, Tedros said, “As the DG, I take ultimate responsibility for the behavior of the people we employ, and for any failings in our systems that allowed this behavior. I will take personal responsibility for making whatever changes we need to make to prevent this happening in the future.”
This case of sexual abuse in Congo linked to WHO is not new. On September 29, 2020, Reuters published a report on these allegations entitled: “More than 50 women accuse aid workers of sexual abuse in Congo Ebola crisis”. After a year, there is finally a report with the allegations.
The report reads that “at least 30 women said workers from the World Health Organization were involved. Women also noted men came from UNICEF, Oxfam, Medecins Sans Frontieres, International Organisation for Migration, World Vision and ALIMA”.