WHO bans staff who sexually exploited and abused women during Ebola outbreak response in DR Congo

Report says WHO staffers sexually abused women in DR Congo

The World Health Organization on Tuesday announced that it has banned all 21 staff who were identified to have sexually exploited and abused women during the Ebola outbreak response in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the announcement at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, where the report of the investigation carried out by an independent commission was released.

The commission said 83 perpetrators were identified with 21 of them being staff of the WHO. The rest worked for other United Nations agencies.

The WHO clarified that out of the 21 staff who worked for the organization, none of them remains employed. The remaining four staff were terminated on Tuesday following the release of the report.

The Organization also placed two senior staff on administrative leave, adding that it was taking steps to ensure that others who may be implicated are temporarily relieved of any decision-making role in respect of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse.

“This is a dark day for the WHO,” Dr. Tedros said, adding that the perpetrators will be referred to authorities for legal actions as the WHO does not have the power to arrest or prosecute people.

“The first thing I want to say is to the victims and survivors of the sexual exploitation and abuse described in the commission’s report,” Dr. Tedros said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what was done to you by people who were employed by WHO to serve and protect you. 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.”

He added, “As you have heard, the commission has identified dozens of potential victims of sexual exploitation and abuse, and 21 alleged perpetrators, who were employed by WHO at the time of the events.

“The victims were only able to provide first names for several other alleged perpetrators, whom we are yet to fully identify. For those cases, WHO is engaging an external investigative service to assess what additional steps are required.

“Based on the information we have, the Organization will ban the identified perpetrators from future employment with WHO, and we will notify the broader UN system.

“We are terminating the contracts of four people identified as perpetrators who were still employed by the Organization when we were made aware of the allegations against them.

“WHO will also refer the allegations of rape to national authorities in DRC for investigation, and in the country of nationality of the alleged perpetrators, where applicable.

“We have requested confirmation from the Independent Commission that the victims of rape have provided consent for WHO to refer their cases to the relevant national authorities.

“Providing services and support to victims and survivors is our central concern. WHO is not yet aware of the identity of the victims and survivors.

“As we receive more information from the Commission on their identity and location, we will ensure that they all have access to the services they need, including medical and psychosocial support, and assistance for education for their children. These services are available in DRC from our partners across the UN system.

“We are committed to a survivor- and victim-centred approach that prioritises their needs, preferences and participation, as we expand services in DRC and around the world.

“Although the Commission’s work has ended, we have provided continued access to anonymous reporting mechanisms for incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse. Anyone who calls to complain will be referred to services.”

The WHO chief added that the commission identified negligence on the part of certain individuals that may amount to professional misconduct in the management of some of the incidents reported.

“In my view, the failure of WHO employees to respond adequately to reports of sexual exploitation and abuse is as bad as the events themselves,” he said.

He added, “We must have zero tolerance for sexual exploitation and abuse, and zero tolerance for inaction against it.

“I deeply regret that the suffering of victims may have been exacerbated by the apparent failings in the way the Organization handled reports.

“The Commission has recommended an investigation to identify individual responsibilities for the failure to activate investigation procedures, and we are taking immediate steps to initiate that investigation, using an external investigative service.

“While that investigation proceeds, the Organization has placed two senior staff on administrative leave, and we’re taking steps to ensure that others who may be implicated are temporarily relieved of any decision-making role in respect of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse.

“It is important to be clear that these actions do not in any way prejudge the outcome of the investigation and are not a disciplinary measure or attribution of guilt.

“The Organization will initiate appropriate disciplinary action in respect of findings of misconduct from the investigation.

“We have also asked the Independent Expert Oversight Advisory Committee to engage an external body to conduct an audit into cases processed by WHO’s Internal Oversight Services, to establish whether any further cases of incidents of possible sexual exploitation and abuse were subject to procedural failings.”

The way ahead

The WHO boss said the organization will undertake wholesale reform of policies and processes to address sexual exploitation and abuse.

“But we must go further, to identify and address any shortcomings in our culture or leadership that fail to adequately protect the people we serve, or that create opportunities for abusers to exploit,” he said.

He added, “the commission has identified the need for fundamental changes in our structures and institutional capacity for preventing, detecting and responding to sexual exploitation and abuse in the communities we serve. We will engage external experts and services to make sure this happens. We need to make sure that victims and survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse have safe and easily accessible reporting mechanisms, anywhere in the world. As you know, the Ebola response in North Kivu and Ituri was a large and complex operation in a highly insecure region, requiring large-scale recruitment of local and international personnel. But none of that is an excuse for sexual exploitation and abuse.”

Dr. Tedros conceded that the WHO should have taken stronger measures to screen candidates and ensure more effective human resources processes.

“Already we have taken several steps to improve our HR practices in recruitment, onboarding, induction and training. We will also take steps to integrate standards of behaviour relating to sexual exploitation and abuse in performance management, starting with leaders and managers,” he said. “We have also initiated special briefings for managers, especially at the country level. Going forward, WHO country representatives, incident managers, health cluster coordinators and directors will be required to participate in additional training to ensure that they are able to create an environment for the prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, and to take managerial action without delay in case of any suspected incident. I will ensure we provide sufficient resources and staff for the work ahead of us.”

The sexual exploitation and abuse: how it all started

The abuses happened during the 10th Ebola Virus Disease Outbreak in the Provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, in the Republic of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) between 2018 and 2020.

The investigation was launched following a news article that exposed the sexual exploitation and abuse during the Ebola outbreak response.

The review team began its investigations on May 3, 2021, with the deployment of investigators specialized in sexual exploitation and abuse issues, in witness and victim protection issues as well as in psychosocial issues.

The field investigations took place in the towns of Goma, Beni, Bunia and Butembo.

Dozens of women said they were sexually exploited or abused by male aid workers responding to an Ebola crisis in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The abuses included rape that led to unwanted pregnancies.

The women said the men offered them jobs in exchange for sex and identified themselves as working for major aid organizations, including from the WHO.

At least 14 of those claims mentioned the World Health Organization. A total of seven organizations were named.

You can read the full report below

Butembo where the allegations centered on is a major trading city that was the epicenter of the 2018-2020 outbreak of Ebola. At least 2,200 lives were lost.

Commission makes recommendations

The commission has made 7 recommendations, with 20 specific actions, including several of them already in place at the WHO.

Chief White House Correspondent for

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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