Minding the gap on sexual abuse at WHO

World Health Organization logo in Geneva. (Guilhem Vellut)

After a wave of sexual abuse allegations at the WHO, the agency says a mechanism now exists to tackle the issue. But for survivors, little appears to have changed.

A day after media reported on alleged abuses by a senior scientist at the World Health Organization (WHO), an all-female team from the UN agency told a waning number of journalists at a pre-weekend briefing in Geneva that strides were being made in preventing and addressing sexual misconduct in the institution.

Last week, the British daily The Telegraph wrote that an official who led the Health Interface Security Unit was placed on administrative leave after complaints were made that he repeatedly harassed women physically and verbally over a twenty year period.

In January, Temo Waqanivalu, the FIjian head of delivery of non-communicable disease services, was identified by the Associated Press in an abuse case involving a young doctor attending a global health summit last year in Berlin, in which he denied all accusations of assault. He was subsequently suspended by WHO from his position. But in spite of earlier harassment allegations filed against him from within the organisation, he had been tapped in the meantime to head the Pacific region within the health organisation.

On Friday at the media briefing, Catharina Boehme, WHO cabinet chief, read a statement on action being taken, saying that it was “totally committed today to tackling the issue of sexual misconduct”, adding it was already doing so for “nearly two years”.

“It may even look like the situation is getting worse before it gets better,” Boehme read, stressing that change will take time as trust builds in the new system WHO is putting in place to deal with the abuse.

But abuse revelations had already been emerging for some time. Investigations by The New Humanitarian revealed in 2020 and 2021 that dozens of WHO staff working in the Democratic Republic of Congo were exploiting vulnerable women for sex during emergency operations. 

A sexual abuse survivor who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, told Geneva Solutions that the process of dealing with her complaint by WHO has been “opaque”. 

“I don’t know what sort of process they go through. They haven’t told me much, including who is in charge of it. It’s scary,” she said. “I don’t understand why it takes so long, especially since it is taxpayers’ money.”

She added that many cases had taken years to investigate and that she found it difficult to understand why WHO couldn’t protect people from harassment.

Moving the needle forward

WHO says it has introduced various changes to improve accountability and to report cases. Boehme said in 2022, 107 complaints of abuse were filed, including 75 investigations that were concluded. In cases that predated 2022, three employees were dismissed following sexual harassment and one consultant’s contract was terminated due to sexual exploitation.

Gaya Gamhewage, director of WHO’s department of prevention & response to sexual misconduct (PRSEAH), told journalists that the UN agency has 350 people employed throughout the organisation to address the issue of sexual misconduct, including 40 full-time staff. The experts work on raising awareness, understanding policies and assessing risk.

“When disasters happen, risk goes up due to the massive influx of resources and people who may not be aware of the standards” related to the issue of abuse, she said. Gamhewage said measures were put in place following the recent earthquake on the Turkish-Syrian border.

As a Geneva-based organisation, WHO is subject to a Swiss legal obligation that punishes any organisation that does not have an internal policy preventing sexual harassment.

Laetitia Carrera, co-lead at Le deuxième Observatoire’s centre for expertise on distress and harassment at work, told Geneva Solutions that international organisations often have to deal with multiple national legal systems where their staff operate. “That is something that would need to be improved.”

The Geneva-based NGO also hosts a gender relations research institute. Carrera said it is also very important to implement staff training, sensitise employees, establish internal directives to tackle sexual abuse, and improve processes when cases are reported.

Denial or crisis control?

WHO has not however been alone in terms of accusations of sexual abuse committed by its staff. A 2019 UN-wide survey found that a third of workers who participated in the study had experienced sexual harrassement.

Reports of a coverup of employees at the UK charity Oxfam hiring prostitutes, including under-aged girls in Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, may have taken years to come to light, with devastating effects on the organisation.

After the abuse was unravelled in 2018 at various levels of the British government, the scandal “opened the lid” to sex abuse in the humanitarian sector, according to Tanya Wood, executive director at CHS Alliance, a network of aid groups that focus on operating and accountability standards. 

The group, which receives support from various governments including Switzerland, the UK, Denmark and Netherlands, published the Protection from Sexual Exploitation Index and recently issued a paper on what a victim or survivor centred framework for addressing SEAH could mean for the sector.

“They got caught and took the hit on the scandal,” Wood told Geneva Solutions about Oxfam, saying that the NGO had taken quite a few measures at the time to address the issue.

Other organisations, including Save The Children, the World Food Programme (WFP) and Médecins Sans Frontières have also been the target of abuse allegations in various emergency settings.

In light of the trickle of allegations against WHO staffers in recent years, response from WHO has been staggered, with apologies to survivors and statements on measures being adopted coming after the publication of independent reports on events. 

Associated Press reported last week that a confidential UN report revealed that mishandling of a sexual misconduct case during the Ebola response in the DRC, in which WHO staffers signed a deal for financial compensation to be given to a women impregnated by one of their employees, was not in violation of WHO’s policies due to “loopholes”.

“We have a one hundred per cent responsibility that we are not perpetrators,” Gamhewage told Geneva Solutions at last Friday’s press briefing. 

She said it was unfortunate that media reports would publish the names of staffers accused of the misconduct. Not only may that impact the “fair and proper process” of the investigation, for which the WHO would “face an onslaught”, but “victims themselves may not get justice”, she said.

Wood meanwhile said that humanitarian organisations, such as the WHO, faced a difficult balance as they put mechanisms in place to tackle and respond to sexual misconduct, particularly with regard to funding from donors. “It is really tricky. Of course we want to penalise the perpetrators, but if they get the backlash of donors withdrawing their funding, they are in a slightly Catch-22 position.” 

She said that the organisations should also not be punished as they try to address the issues. The UN agency, which is not one of the CHS Alliance’s members, has “put in a lot” to tackle the abuse, she said.

Cultural shift

Within a humanitarian sector that has long reflected a traditional, “colonialist-type system”, where staff was often moved after incidents of abuse and impunity often went unchecked, Wood said a change in culture, allowing for survivors to feel comfortable to report cases, is sorely needed.

“Wherever you do not have an accountability system, there is a need for culture change,” she said. Her group promotes the Misconduct Disclosure Scheme allowing organisations to crosscheck staff as they change jobs.

“It is no longer acceptable for the old boy network to be moving people around” without greater transparency, she said.

The abuse survivor who Geneva Solutions spoke to said vocabulary in use by the WHO should be reconsidered. ”It is weird that they are now using sexual misconduct to describe the abuse. It feels like a dampening down of the severity of it. Sexual assault and rape should be called what they are,” she said.

Gamhewage said that its new policy to be soon launched will put the focus on the perpetrator regardless of whether the victim may be another employee or external to the organisation.

“We have gone beyond what is required,” the WHO official said. ”We are infuriated when  all the burden is put on the victims. They have to suffer, they have to complain, and have to be subject to policy. Those who should be subject to policy are us.”

Soon after filing her complaint, the abuse victim said WHO invited her to reach out to their hotline for post-trauma advice, though she said the service was “really unhelpful”. 

She said that she was soon expecting a decision on her investigation but was uncertain if it would be shared with her. 

After eight sessions of counselling, the survivor admitted she is still taking in what had happened. Similarly to what WHO said about recently introduced changes to sexual misconduct policy, she said: “It will take time.”