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Why Ebola sex abuse victims may never find justice

‘The UN has essentially created a two-tier system for survivors of sexual abuse.’

Picture of a profile of a woman hidden behind a palm leaf. Stringer/Thomson Reuters Foundation
More than 100 women in DR Congo say they were abused by aid workers during the 10th Ebola outbreak, one of the largest sex abuse scandals in the UN’s history.

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Ketsia* said she was working as a part-time cleaner for the World Health Organization during the 2018 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, when a doctor invited her to his house and offered her a promotion in exchange for sex. He tried to rape her, but she managed to escape. Weeks later, her contract was terminated. 


Had Ketsia been a UN staffer, she would have had access to the UN’s own internal justice mechanisms, where workers have been awarded judgments equalling two years’ worth of salaries – sometimes as much as $200,000.


Similarly, had she taken such a case to US courts, settlements for workplace sexual abuse and harassment have reached tens of millions of dollars. Many cases have also resulted in criminal convictions.  


In the end, she and more than 100 others who were lured into sex-for-work schemes in DR Congo by WHO personnel and other aid workers received one-off payments of $250, toiletry bundles, short training courses, and counselling sessions – the costs drawn from a $2 million survivor assistance fund provided by WHO after one of the largest sex abuse scandals in the UN’s history. 


Very few victims of UN sexual abuse and exploitation ever see justice – whether that means compensation, seeing perpetrators punished, or winning paternity claims, according to rights groups and lawyers who have represented women in such cases.


“Until now, justice has not been done. Why? Because it’s about Black women living in a conflict zone in the DRC. You can easily forget about them.”


Prosecuting rape and sexual abuse is notoriously difficult, but it becomes even harder the longer investigations take. Some of the allegations in the Ebola sex abuse scandal date back to 2018, although many were not reported until The New Humanitarian and Thomson Reuters Foundation first broke the story in 2020. 


Victims and local prosecutors also face a maze of challenges when it comes to cases involving UN personnel. Compensation and reparations are even thornier subjects – there is often little agreement on who should pay, and in the case of the Ebola sex abuse scandal, the UN has ruled out reparations.


“This means that the life of a Congolese woman … is not worth more than $250,” Chantal Yelu Mulop, special advisor on youth, gender, and violence against women in the Congolese president’s office, told The New Humanitarian on 24 March. 


“Until now, justice has not been done,” she said. “Why? Because it’s about Black women living in a conflict zone in the DRC. You can easily forget about them.” 


Read more: Aid sector sex abuse: A common occurrence with reoccurring themes


To date, no aid workers have faced charges despite a WHO-appointed independent commission reporting nine rape allegations, including that of a 13-year-old girl. In DR Congo, rape can carry a life sentence, and perpetrators have been ordered to pay victims compensation.


Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi has yet to receive any update on investigations or dossiers on the allegations, Yelu Mulop said, adding that she intended to press the issue with UN authorities, as well as government ministries.


WHO did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication.



As temporary and part-time cooks, cleaners, and outreach workers during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak, women who were lured into sex-for-work schemes earned between $50 and $100 a month. Some said they were only hired if they agreed to sex and were routinely harassed by supervisors once they were given jobs. Others said they were fired if they refused. 


A year after the sex abuse scandal broke in 2020, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus apologised to victims and announced a raft of internal reforms, potential disciplinary action against personnel, and the dedicated survivors’ fund. 


Since then, Gaya Gamhewage – appointed in 2021 to lead WHO’s efforts to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation – said the UN agency has made significant progress, clearing a backlog of investigations, adding specialised staff, and rolling out a new policy aimed at addressing “gaps, loopholes, and lack of clarity”.


Barriers to justice

Although WHO has said the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) has not yet shared its investigative findings from the DR Congo sex abuse scandal, 14 alleged perpetrators associated with WHO had their names entered into the UN’s ClearCheck database, a system meant to prevent suspected abusers from getting other UN jobs.


Another seven “separated” from the WHO. One of those died, and the details of six others were not entered into ClearCheck because they were accused of harassment, which doesn’t necessarily involve physical contact.


“We need to do everything that we can to hold perpetrators to account in a timely manner.”


It was unclear whether WHO’s own investigators were conducting separate investigations in addition to those being conducted by OIOS or why WHO investigators haven’t referred cases to national authorities. 


Christian Saunders, who became the UN’s newest special coordinator on improving the response to sexual exploitation and abuse in July 2022, has said numerous achievements have been made since 2016 – the year his role was created – but challenges remain. 


One of those is getting investigations done faster and communicating the results. 


“We need to do everything that we can to hold perpetrators to account in a timely manner,” he told UNToday, the UN’s magazine, last month. “Often, investigations take over a year, then the HR process can take as long as another year, so it’s potentially two years after the event was reported. This is too long.”


Even when cases are referred to local authorities, however, it’s often an uphill battle when it comes to allegations involving UN personnel.


Take the alleged 2017 rape of a 16-year-old Congolese girl by a British man working for the UN peacekeeping mission. After her mother reported it to the UN mission, the allegations were substantiated, but UK authorities decided not to prosecute. 


Lengthy investigations, elusive paternity settlements

Paternity claims against UN personnel are also difficult to enforce, and enforcement is even harder when the suspected father has moved or returned to his home country. 


Although a Haitian judge ordered a UN peacekeeper from Uruguay to make child support payments for a child he fathered, the order has been difficult to enforce. The UN often leaves national authorities to deal with such cases. In the case of UN peacekeepers, this often falls to the countries that contributed the troops.


“If the UN was serious about living up to its own stated standards of accountability and victim-focused response, it would create a system that takes direct responsibility for ensuring that victims have access to restitution and support.”


Several other paternity cases involving UN personnel are being litigated by the Haiti-based Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and their partner organisation, Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH).


“If the UN was serious about living up to its own stated standards of accountability and victim-focused response, it would create a system that takes direct responsibility for ensuring that victims have access to restitution and support,” said Sasha Filippova, senior staff attorney with IJDH. 


“Our cases in Haiti illustrate that in practice, it means there is none,” Filippova said, adding that in crisis-wracked countries like Haiti, survival needs often become the priority over accountability and restitution. 


There also appears to be a stark difference in the time it takes to investigate some claims. 


Take the case of Rosie James, a 26-year-old doctor working for the UK’s National Health Service, who said in October that she was sexually assaulted by a WHO staffer while attending a WHO-sponsored conference in Berlin.


WHO suspended the staffer within weeks of the complaint and launched an investigation. The UN health agency has boosted its investigative capacity since the Ebola sex abuse scandal. 


Yet, more than two years since the scandal broke, investigations into the 2018-2020 abuse claims in DR Congo are still ongoing. 


“The UN has essentially created a two-tier system for survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation at their hands,” said Priyanka Chirimar, an international human rights lawyer who worked for the UN for 10 years, and now litigates before UN employment tribunals for victims and survivors.


UN double standards on reparations 

The UN embraces a “survivor-centred” approach when it comes to victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, but women and girls lured into sex-for-work schemes by aid workers during the 10th Ebola outbreak say the reality is much different. 


The approach is intended to “put the rights of each survivor at the forefront of all actions and ensure that each survivor is treated with dignity and respect,” the UN states. It is also designed to put survivors “at the centre of the process”.


“Justice and reparation are completely interlinked.”


Part of that process involves asking victims if they want to pursue criminal cases or paternity claims. During The New Humanitarian’s reporting, dozens of victims agreed to share details with investigators to discuss potential legal avenues.


“They came to get information from us victims, then left us with nothing,” one 28-year-old woman told The New Humanitarian in September, recalling her interview with investigators from the independent commission. 


Outside of victims’ legal options, one of the most under-resourced and little-discussed areas in the prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation is redress and compensation, according to the Core Humanitarian Standard Alliance (CHS Alliance), a network of non-governmental organisations working in humanitarian aid that focuses on improving the aid sector’s accountability to people in crisis. 


Under international law, victims of human rights violations have a right to adequate, prompt, and effective access to remedies and reparation. 


Reparation can take many forms, including medical and psychological rehabilitation, restitution, public apologies, financial compensation or other measures that could include bringing perpetrators to justice.


Although the UN’s rights body has advocated for reparations in the cases of sexual violence and human rights violations, the UN says its own rules prohibit payment of reparations.


Reem Alsalem, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences, was one of several critics of how WHO handled the sex abuse scandal. 


When contacted by The New Humanitarian, she said any victims’ assistance needed to be relevant and with regular monitoring. 


“What is also very important is whatever you do for victims is transformative, that it doesn’t just bring them back to their situation before the violation, that it actually leads to a significant improvement in getting them out of structural inequality and violence that they’ve been suffering from,” she told The New Humanitarian. 


The Global Survivors Fund (GSF) is one such group providing a template for how governments (and potentially organisations) can address the multifaceted harms and stigmatisation suffered by victims of sexual violence through reparations.



GSF tries to galvanise states to take up their responsibility. GSF projects in Guinea and DR Congo have already shown that where such measures are “co-created” with survivors they have had real impact, said Esther Dingemans, executive director of the Geneva-based group. 


“Our approach is to just start showing how these models can work. But you need to just start talking about reparation rather than shying away from it. The how, who, and what will become clearer in the process of co-creation with the survivors,” Dingemans told The New Humanitarian.


Danaé van der Straten Ponthoz, also with GSF, added:

“Justice and reparation are completely interlinked.”


*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the survivor. 

Freelance journalist Jonas Gerding contributed to this report from Kinshasa.

Edited by Josephine Schmidt.

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