Dozens more women have come forward to accuse workers for the World Health Organization and other aid groups of sexual abuse and exploitation during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – testimonies that suggest the scale of the scandal is even larger than previously reported.
The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation first uncovered the scandal in 2020. That investigation prompted WHO to appoint an independent commission, which in 2021 confirmed that WHO personnel and other aid workers had lured women into sex-for-work schemes during the outbreak.
The 34 new allegations were discovered in late September 2022 as part of follow-up reporting on what assistance had been given to more than 100 victims.
Of the new allegations, 26 women said the abuse resulted in pregnancies, 18 of them allegedly involving WHO staff.
The New Humanitarian alerted WHO to the latest accounts in September. In February, the women said they had not yet been contacted by the WHO or by investigators from the independent commission.
Mathilde*, one of the women, said she was 15 and working for the response when her boss asked her to come to his hotel. When she arrived, she said he demanded sex in exchange for keeping her job. Months later, she discovered she was pregnant.
She is now raising a three-year-old daughter on her own.
During the course of The New Humanitarian’s original investigation and a follow-up published in May 2021, reporters spoke to 73 women who said they were abused in Beni and Butembo, two hubs of the Ebola response. The 34 women who have recently come forward are in Cantine and Mangina, towns to the west of Beni where the outbreak also occurred.
Four women said they were under 18 at the time they were abused, and most said they didn’t report the abuse because they didn’t know how to or weren’t aware that assistance was available.
“I didn’t want to ruin my own life. Life is so hard as is, so I would always go whenever he called.”
Of the 34 women who recently came forward, 27 said they were abused or exploited by men who said they worked for WHO; five accused staff from UNICEF, and one each accused workers from World Vision and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
UNICEF asked The New Humanitarian to “encourage these five women to provide us with the information we need to provide them with support and to investigate”.
“We take such allegations very seriously, and if they report we will be able to offer invaluable victim support,” said UNICEF spokesperson Christopher de Bono, adding that the UN agency only reports back on the outcomes of cases, not investigations.
The New Humanitarian asks all women who share their accounts of abuse if they would be willing for reporters to share their contact information with organisations implicated.
Gaya Gamhewage – appointed in 2021 to lead WHO’s efforts to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation – said that, as of February, the UN agency was not aware of any paternity cases against WHO personnel.
She added that the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) was still investigating allegations linked to the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak. Part of that work could include following up on paternity claims and facilitating DNA testing for them.
Any new cases would also fall under the purview of OIOS, Gamhewage said, adding that more women had come forward with allegations since the independent commission issued its report mentioning 83 victims in September 2021. She noted that WHO had worked to improve its reporting mechanisms since the scandal broke.
As of February, WHO and its partner organisations had reached 115 victims, offering one-time payments of $250, counselling, medical care, and transport to appointments. Eleven refused any type of assistance.
Among the 34 women who recently shared accounts of abuse, one said she was 17 when a man claiming to be a WHO worker presented her with a sex-for-work arrangement.
“Sir, I’m still just a child,” she said she told him, but he insisted and brought her to a hotel where they had sex.
“My life became so bleak. This was my first time to be with a man like this, in this case, an old man. I felt awful,” she told The New Humanitarian in September, adding that she ended up with a venereal disease from the abuse.
Another survivor was 25 when, because she was desperate for money, she accepted a sex-for-work offer from a man who said he was a WHO staffer. She said the man expected regular sex and would call her late at night.
“I didn’t want to ruin my own life,” she said. “Life is so hard as is, so I would always go whenever he called.”
When she became pregnant, he stopped taking her calls, and she lost her cleaning job soon after, she recalled, adding that she then had an abortion that has left her with ongoing health problems.
The ICRC, which wasn’t mentioned by any women in 2020 but was named in the most recent allegations, said investigations are ongoing but haven’t resulted in any conclusive findings.
World Vision also requested information that would enable them to offer support to the women, but doesn’t disclose information about specific cases, according to spokesperson Mory Cunningham.
One of the women said she is raising a three-year-old daughter alone after a man who said he was a WHO staffer demanded sex in exchange for a cleaning job when she was 24 years old. She said she has turned to the sex trade to support her daughter.
“I’m left wondering what I might have done with my life, what I might have done if I weren’t left here without the father of my child,” she told The New Humanitarian in September. “Maybe one day we will have support.”
*This woman's name was changed on her request for security reasons.
Additional reporting by Paisley Dodds in London and Jacob Goldberg in Bangkok. Edited by Andrew Gully.