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EXCLUSIVE: WHO sex abuse victims say help is too little too late

‘They came to get information from us, then left us with nothing.’

Person with hazmat suit walking in front of a WHO logo. James Akena/Reuters
WHO was one of the biggest organisations involved in the 10th Ebola outbreak response in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was also one of the main ones to face allegations of sex abuse by its workers.

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Nearly two dozen survivors of the UN’s largest known sexual abuse scandal say the World Health Organization has been slow to make good on promises of support, and that when assistance has come it has been too little to rebuild their lives. 

After suffering abuse during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, many women who were promised support in 2021 received one-time payments of $250 – the rough equivalent of two days’ worth of per diems for UN staff. 

  • Key findings: Support and justice for Ebola sex abuse victims 

  • Assistance given to 104 women so far; 11 refused
  • Women have been given one-time payments of $250
  • Counselling, medical support, and toiletry bundles offered
  • Half the victims have yet to be reached for legal assistance
  • Dozens of additional women report new abuse claims 
  • No UN personnel have been referred for potential prosecution

“I was happy, but this is a very small amount,” said one woman who was given $250, money that was drawn from a $2 million survivor assistance fund.  

Others said they were given bundles of toiletries, buckets, and three-hour courses in basket weaving or entrepreneurship, in addition to receiving the cash payments. A handful said they were still waiting for help. Several said they were struggling to care for children on their own after being deserted by the aid workers who fathered them. 

Some who were promised assistance were also later refused, according to HEAL Africa, one of the main local organisations contracted by WHO and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) to help implement the support programmes.

The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation first uncovered the scandal in 2020, publishing a second investigation in 2021. The reporting prompted WHO to appoint an independent commission, which confirmed in 2021 that WHO workers had lured women into sex-for-work schemes. A number of other UN agencies and aid organisations were also named by women.

Reporters from The New Humanitarian met with 21 women in September, and again last month, to ask what assistance they had received. Of the 73 victims uncovered in the 2020 or 2021 investigations, these 21 had agreed for their information to be shared with the independent commission. 

In the course of that reporting, 34 more women also came forward in the towns of Cantine and Mangina with new allegations of sexual abuse by aid workers during the Ebola response, mostly by men who told them they worked for WHO.

READ MORE: More women accuse aid workers in Ebola sex abuse scandal

Although the independent commission recommended in its report that “reparations” be made to the victims, WHO said UN rules prohibit such payments. Investigations into the abuse are still ongoing.

“All I can tell you is WHO is committed to being transparent and to being accountable, and when this process is finalised, I sincerely believe we will do the right thing,” Gaya Gamhewage, who was appointed in 2021 to lead WHO’s sex abuse prevention efforts, said at a 28 February news conference. 

After the scandal, WHO established the survivors assistance fund. As of last month, WHO said some $350,000 from the fund had been transferred to organisations in DR Congo, and that it was considering the extension of some contracts related to the support operations there. 

WHO’s global budget for the prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment is $50 million, according to Gamhewage. 

Last week, WHO announced a new policy aimed at addressing “gaps, loopholes, and lack of clarity” in its procedures for preventing and responding to sexual abuse and exploitation.

But the new rulebook, which enters into force today amid uproar over a loophole that allowed three senior managers to return to work after they were accused of failing to report sexual misconduct during the Ebola response, comes too late for some victims.  

“I am begging for them to help us,” one woman told The New Humanitarian in September, a year after WHO announced the $2 million fund and promised far-reaching reforms and assistance, including legal aid and counselling.

 

“They said they’d help us with psychosocial support. We haven’t seen it. They said they will bring financial support. We haven’t seen it.”

 

Contacted by reporters again last month, she said she had by then received $250, soap, underwear, and a bucket for use in the bathroom. But with so little money, she was still struggling to care for her two-year-old daughter, who she said was born out of the abuse.

One-time payments of $250 were meant to help with “income-generating activities”, with the amount calculated on a number of factors, including costs in the region, as well as the cost of training and materials needed, according to Anna Jefferys, a media adviser for UNFPA, the UN agency that WHO appointed to help lead victims’ assistance efforts.

To help determine the amount, UNFPA said consultations were held with women at risk of gender-based violence and exploitation – including some victims – but that the victims weren’t consulted as one unique group due to confidentiality concerns.  

Some women said they had worked for WHO during the Ebola response as cooks, cleaners, and community outreach workers, earning $50 to $100 a month – more than twice the average wage.

Job opportunities have been scarce for women in eastern DR Congo, which has been embroiled in one of the longest running humanitarian crises in history. 

Many women recounted being plied with drinks, ambushed in offices and hospitals, and preyed upon at job recruitment centres. Some said they were locked in rooms by men who promised jobs or threatened to fire them if they refused to have sex. Many said they were impregnated or had contracted venereal diseases.  

WHO was one of the largest organisations involved in the Ebola response, deploying more than 1,500 people to the area amid a number of challenges, including dangers around the disease itself and sporadic violence in the region.

Some of those difficulties contributed to delays in reaching victims over the past 18 months, according to Gamhewage. She said that as of February, 115 victims had been reached and offered monetary payments, psychosocial support, medical care, and training sessions. Eleven refused assistance. The payments and assistance were not limited to WHO victims, she added.

“What happened to you should never happen to anyone,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general, said of the victims at a news conference in 2021, after the publication of the independent commission’s report. He apologised to the women and called it “a dark day for WHO”. 

However, similar abuses had been reported earlier, during the WHO-led response to the West Africa Ebola outbreak between 2014 and 2016. Several more UN and aid sector sexual abuse scandals made headlines in the years that followed. 

Despite the earlier scandals, the independent commission noted in its report that WHO was “completely unprepared to deal with the risks/incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse” during the DR Congo Ebola outbreak. 

 

Years too late 

It took more than a year after the scandal broke for investigators to reach many of the victims. It took another year for many to be given updates on their cases or to learn what type of assistance they may receive. 

“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. 

“That means that they exploited us too. The exploitation hasn’t stopped.”

Despite informing investigators about the WHO worker who gave her a job in exchange for sex, the woman told The New Humanitarian in February that she still hadn’t received any assistance. She said her fiancé ended their relationship once he found out about the abuse. She said she winces every time she sees a WHO logo on a vehicle.

“They said they’d help us with psychosocial support. We haven’t seen it. They said they will bring financial support. We haven’t seen it.”

Of the 83 cases noted by the independent commission, 23 were found to be associated with WHO personnel, Gamhewage said, adding that the remainder of allegations were against other UN agencies and humanitarian agencies.

Read More: How other UN agencies and aid groups have responded

The majority of allegations in the scandal involved WHO. But workers from UNICEF, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), World Vision, ALIMA, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), International Medical Corps (IMC), and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) were also implicated.

At the time of The New Humanitarian’s initial 2020 investigation, MSF said it had not received any reports of abuse, raising “important questions over whether there were flaws in our reporting mechanisms”.

Like WHO, MSF then initiated an internal investigation. It also undertook an “ethical review”, which included a survey of some 628 people employed in the Ebola response.

During the course of its investigation, MSF identified 24 cases of “personal abuse”, many of which entailed sex in exchange for jobs. 

MSF said four cases were substantiated: Three people were fired, but one involved an alleged perpetrator who MSF said could not be positively identified. Two cases were unsubstantiated, and seven were closed because of a lack of information or at the request of the complainant, MSF said, adding that two cases were found to be linked to other organisations. 

UNICEF said it substantiated allegations against one person who worked in the response, but by the time an investigation was launched that individual had left UNICEF and has since died.

It said it was not able to access evidence from the independent commission, “but we were advised that none of the victims who were interviewed during that investigation spoke about abuse by UNICEF staff,” said UNICEF spokesperson Christopher de Bono.

He added that the agency was complying with all major recommendations of the independent commission, and that UNICEF offers victims a wide range of support but declined to specify as “we do not believe it is in victims’ interest.”

Clémentine Colas, a spokesperson for medical NGO ALIMA, said apart from cases that had already been investigated, more recent allegations were “found to not involve abuse of beneficiaries and community members by ALIMA staff or partners”.

The IRC conducted an urgent review of safeguarding standards after the allegations surfaced in 2020. Spokesperson Assia Sabi also said the organisation hired a dedicated safeguarding manager in DR Congo, provided regular safeguarding training to staff, and integrated safeguarding into recruitment and onboarding processes.

In The New Humanitarian’s second investigation, a woman accused an IRC recruitment supervisor of offering her a job in exchange for sex. When contacted in October, and again in March, IRC provided no further updates on the case.

IMC also had no further updates when The New Humanitarian contacted the organisation in October.

Oxfam, which was accused in one case and was assisting the victim, said they provide regular training to staff in DR Congo on preventing and reporting abuse, and they have hired a national safeguarding adviser, as well as 11 safeguarding focal points across seven field offices in the country.

Oxfam would not say whether there was more than one allegation associated with its role in the Ebola response.

In February, Oxfam published a new safeguarding strategy that seeks to “embed safeguarding in Oxfam’s culture and practice”. 

“We know that there is no room for complacency, and that our safeguarding journey will never be complete, but we are committed to an ongoing cycle of learning and improvements,” said Oxfam spokesperson Tricia O’Rourke.

IOM said OIOS was not able to corroborate the allegations against its staff brought forward by The New Humanitarian in 2020.

Nearly 70% of the women interviewed by The New Humanitarian said they were abused or exploited by men who said they worked for WHO. Gamhewage said WHO’s investigations showed some men were posing as WHO workers, and others worked for different aid organisations.

Asked if she was frustrated by any aspect of WHO’s response to the scandal, Gamhewage told The New Humanitarian in an interview in September: “No. When I look at what other agencies are doing and what I’ve been able to do, it’s incredible.”

Upon her appointment, Gamhewage urged the UN health body to be “courageous” in implementing widespread reforms.

Those have included efforts to speed up investigations and appointing new investigative staff to help clear a backlog of global cases. Gamhewage said it was possible some victims still had not been reached.

No settlements, no reparations

Despite recommendations from the independent commission, WHO has said repeatedly that UN rules prohibit paying reparations. The UN itself, however, has called for reparations to be made in cases of human rights violations and conflict-related sexual violence.

Some organisations, like the Catholic Church, have sold off assets to pay reparations to victims of sexual abuse. Other groups found liable for abuses have been successfully sued for compensation and damages.

Temporary contract workers – as many women abused in the Ebola sexual abuse scandal were – lack access to the full extent of UN justice mechanisms. UN staff, by contrast, have been awarded settlements of more than $100,000. 

“I needed work so that my life could continue, so that I could buy myself a parcel to live on – to build a place I could call my own home,” the woman with the two-year-old daughter told The New Humanitarian on 21 September.

She said she was impregnated by a man who said he worked for WHO and offered her a job in exchange for sex. He later blocked her number and refused to hire her. She said she eventually had a miscarriage. 

Another man then offered her a job working for WHO in exchange for sex, she said, adding that after she submitted, she was hired. 

At that time, she had received no assistance. In February, she said she had received her $250. 

Arthur Nzanzu, who was in charge of the HEAL Africa project supporting survivors, told The New Humanitarian last month that it was merely an implementing partner and had no control over the project or how it was rolled out. Nevertheless, he said the programme was constrained by budget limitations, time constraints, and delays – all of which he linked back to UNFPA.

“This shouldn’t be treated like an ‘urgent project’ over a short time. It should be a long-term project that spans two years or even three years.” 

Some of those delays occurred because UNFPA wanted to vet the eligibility of potential beneficiaries of the project, Nzanzu said. UNFPA said an initial list came as a result of its work with victims in target regions.

HEAL Africa had been given an initial database of women by UNFPA who were then informed by HEAL Africa that they would receive support, but Nzanzu said UNFPA then told his organisation to stop and provided them with an entirely new database.

UNFPA said if anything, even more victims – 104 as opposed to 92 – were given assistance. 

“The big problem was, when we started looking for the people who were listed in this new database, it took time, and we could only find a few of them,” Nzanzu told The New Humanitarian in a telephone interview. 

Others on the initial database already promised assistance by HEAL Africa then had to be told they weren’t eligible, Nzanzu said, adding that they were “furious”. UNFPA had no immediate response to this claim at the time of publication.

HEAL Africa began working on the project in April of 2022. It concluded its operations in December. 

“Honestly, the budget was really very small,” Nzanzu said, explaining that the nine-month project received roughly $65,000 of funding, which gave the organisation about $7,000 to work with each month. 

“When they bring such a small amount of money… this shouldn’t be treated like an ‘urgent project’ [over] a short time period,” he said. “It should be a long-term project that spans two years or even three years.” 

He said 104 women received support – but many only in recent months. The New Humanitarian alerted WHO to reported delays in September.

UNFPA said the emphasis was being placed on psychosocial support and reintegrating the women to help them become autonomous. The women have the option to reopen cases if they choose, however, “victim assistance is not provided in perpetuity”, the agency added.

 

‘Justice delayed, justice denied’

Gamhewage reiterated the phrase “justice delayed is justice denied” at the 28 February news conference in Geneva, noting that the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) was still conducting its investigations into the allegations.

Part of that work was to determine if any cases could be referred to the Congolese authorities for possible criminal prosecution.

One of the nine rapes cited by the independent commission was that of a 13-year-old. 

While roughly half of the victims had been reached to offer legal assistance, the other half had not, said Gamhewage, citing difficulties in locating the victims. 

Gamhewage pointed to other challenges in rolling out the victims’ assistance programmes, including difficulties in reconciling the names of some of the women. She said some had given false names to investigators. Telephone numbers also changed. 

Gamhewage said 13 victims are pursuing legal actions, but she had no other information on what the cases involved or which organisation the alleged perpetrators worked for.

WHO also said it hasn’t been informed of any legal proceedings involving paternity claims against WHO personnel. Several victims told The New Humanitarian they had been impregnated by men claiming to work for WHO. 

“Part of the investigations currently being conducted by UN OIOS is also to follow up on paternity claims and to facilitate processing of such claims, including DNA testing,” according to WHO spokesperson Fadéla Chaib.

Ben Swanson, assistant secretary-general of OIOS, declined comment about the status of the investigations when reached by The New Humanitarian by email on 3 March.

Additional reporting by Paisley Dodds in London and Jacob Goldberg in Bangkok. Edited by Paisley Dodds and Andrew Gully.

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