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Then and Now: 25 years of sexual exploitation and abuse

A timeline of repeated scandals, reform pledges, and impunity.

A woman walks down a dirt road away from the camera, holding an umbrella.
Claims of sexual abuse and exploitation against aid workers in the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak came to light in Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo, during an investigation last year by TNH and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. (Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS)

Last year, our investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation uncovered allegations of extensive sexual exploitation and abuse during the 2018-2020 Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was far from the first time we had reported on this widespread, chronic problem – whether at the hands of aid workers or UN peacekeepers.

From Bosnia to Haiti to Central African Republic, such abuses have long stained the reputation of the UN and international NGOs, undermining basic trust in the institutions meant to protect and assist people in crisis. The crux of the issue often comes down to imbalances of power – and the power relations between those providing the aid and those receiving it could not be more stark in humanitarian relief.

Beginning in the 1990s, this timeline exposes a long cycle of impunity: grave abuses followed by statements of shock and outrage, then belated efforts to stem the problem before another revelation of abuse, either in the same country or in a different part of the world.

Timeline: Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, ‘a cancer in our system’


*A photo was removed at the request of the individual shown in the image to avoid any suggestion that person was involved in sexual assault and exploitation claims or policies, 12 February 2021.

With additional research support from Izzy Ellis.

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