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WHO ‘heartbroken’ over reports of sexual abuse by aid workers in DRC

Shekinah stands near her home in Beni, eastern Congo. A panel commissioned by the World Health Organization on Tuesday Sept, 28, 2021 identified more than 80 alleged cases of sex abuse during the U.N. health agency's response to an Ebola outbreak in Congo, including allegations implicating 20 WHO staff members. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Kudra Maliro, File)

An investigation commissioned by the World Health Organization has revealed over 80 alleged incidents of sexual abuse by aid workers during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The findings of the independent panel released on Tuesday found that the abuses, which included nine allegations of rape, were committed by both national and international staff tackling the crisis. It showed 21 of the 83 alleged perpetrators had been employed by the WHO.

WHO regional director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said the organisation was “heartbroken” by the findings. “We in the WHO are indeed humbled, horrified and heartbroken by the findings of this inquiry,” she told reporters at a press conference in Geneva.

Investigators found that most victims were “highly vulnerable”, often in precarious economic situations in an insecure region largely dominated by male emergency responders. The women and girls interviewed ranged between 13 and 34 years old, with the youngest girl recounting how she was raped by a WHO driver who had stopped to offer her a ride home as she sold phone cards on a roadside in April 2019.

Other women interviewed said perpetrators had refused to use birth control, resulting in some 29 pregnancies. A number of women said their abuser had forced them to have an abortion.

Investigators said alleged victims “were not provided with the necessary support and assistance required for such degrading experiences.”

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the report “harrowing reading” and apologised to the victims and survivors of the sexual abuse.

"I'm sorry for what was done to you by people who are employed by WHO to serve and protect you," he said. "It is my top priority that the perpetrators are not excused but held to account.”

The panel’s findings were released following media reports that senior WHO management had been informed of abuse claims but failed to stop the harassment in 2019 during the Ebola outbreak in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces.

A 2020 investigation published by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation uncovered allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by more than 50 women during the 2018-2020 Ebola crisis. The women accused aid workers from the WHO and other agencies of demanding sex in exchange for employment during the epidemic, during which more than 2,200 people were killed.

The WHO said it has terminated the contracts of the four alleged perpetrators who were still employed by the organization, with the remaining 17 no longer with the WHO. Dr Tedros said further investigation would be taken against alleged perpetrators.

Investigators denounced inadequate training for staffers to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation, and managerial shortcomings in handling alleged cases in nine separate cities and villages in the region.

Dr Tedros said the WHO would act “immediately” to support victims and survivors, including psychosocial support and reparations, address staff failures and reforming the organization's “structures and cultures”.

“I struggle to find the words to describe my feelings when I first read the Commission's report,” he said. “The conduct it describes is a sickening betrayal of the people we serve.”

“This is a dark day for WHO. But by shining a light on the failures of individuals and the organization, we hope that the victims feel that their voices have been heard and acted on, ”he added.