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Calls for punishment, aid sector reform after sex abuse scandal in Congo

“We lurch from one scandal to another and keep hearing that ‘lessons have been learnt’. They haven’t.”

The Hotel Beni was one of the main locations where women said the abuse took place during the 2018-2020 Ebola response. (Robert Flummerfelt/TNH)

Aid organisations have vowed to probe allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by Ebola response workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo after an investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation prompted widespread outrage and calls for change.

More than 50 women recounted abuse – many of them multiple incidents – by men who said they were aid workers in the 2018-2020 Ebola response, often promising jobs for sex. Five of the seven NGOs and UN agencies implicated have pledged to open inquiries into the allegations, which centred on the eastern town of Beni.

Nigel Marsh, a spokesperson for World Vision, said on Thursday that a team of investigators was already on the ground in Congo, while the World Health Organization said the UN agency would announce more details about its probe in the coming days.

“The alleged actions are unacceptable and will be robustly investigated,” said Farah Dakhlallah, a WHO spokesperson.

At least 30 women told reporters they were sexually abused or exploited by workers who identified themselves as being with the WHO, according to the joint investigation, which was widely reported by media in Congo and around the world.

UNICEF; the UN's migration agency, IOM; and the medical NGO ALIMA have also vowed investigations. The two other international aid groups mentioned by the women were Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières.

“I was so happy to hear on the radio the things we've all seen with our eyes,” said Enock, a student who lived in the Ebola outbreak zone of Butembo, near Beni, during the time of the alleged abuse. "We can't allow the perpetrators… to be left alone. They should be punished."

But aid sector experts cautioned that criminal prosecutions are rare for humanitarian workers found guilty of sexual abuse and exploitation, and pointed out that allegations are difficult to substantiate following investigations.

According to a UN database that records allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, just 43 out of 280 cases received by UN agencies around the world between 2018 and 2020 have been substantiated. When cases are unsubstantiated it doesn’t mean the abuse didn’t happen, just that investigators were unable to prove it.

Caroline Hunt-Matthes, an independent investigator who specialises in sexual and gender-based violence, told TNH that investigators from UN agencies and NGOs often lack experience in dealing with sexual exploitation and abuse cases.

“It is one of the most difficult areas to investigate,” said Hunt-Matthes, who is also a former UN whistleblower. “It is difficult to find people that have the experience.”

A group of investigators involved in a 2017 inquiry into more than 130 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse involving UN peacekeepers in Central African Republic lacked empathy and tried to discredit victims, according to an internal UN report obtained by TNH last year.

Unreported abuse

Sex-for-jobs schemes were an open secret during Congo’s Ebola outbreak, but few of the aid workers who told reporters they knew about accusations of abuse actually reported it.

Sarah Champion, chair of the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee, said the joint investigation highlights “serious weaknesses” in the systems that aid groups are using to prevent and report abuse. 

“We lurch from one scandal to another and keep hearing that ‘lessons have been learnt’,” said Champion. “They haven’t.”

Yasmin Sooka, a South African human rights lawyer who was part of an independent panel that probed allegations of sexual abuse by French troops in Central African Republic, told TNH that whistleblowing procedures should be beefed up to protect aid workers who provide information about the abuse in Congo.

She also called for local women’s organisations to be used to support investigators and encourage victims to come forward. “Women’s groups need to be involved in these processes to inspire trust and confidence,” Sooka said.

Prior to speaking to journalists, none of the 51 women had reported their allegations, pointing to social stigma, fear of reprisals, or a lack of trust that aid agencies would hold their abusers to account.

SOFEPADI, a Congolese NGO that works on women’s rights and has an office in Beni, told TNH it was available to provide support to victims.

“We call on the leaders of the organisations cited to investigate these accusations and to impose sanctions against those responsible for such acts,” said Rodrigue Ngasembere, SOFEPADI's head of programmes.

Both Sooka and Hunt-Matthes said an independent investigation into the Congo allegations would be preferable, citing conflicts of interests that occur when aid agencies launch inquiries into themselves.

“There needs to be more diversity across organisations, including women in positions of power.”

Jane Connors, the UN Victims’ Advocate based in New York, said she would work to ensure women who come forward receive medical care, psychosocial support, and legal assistance.

At least two women interviewed by reporters during the joint investigation said they became pregnant as a result of their abuse.

“My deepest concern is that victims of these distressing allegations receive the support and assistance they require,” Connors said.

Sooka said psychosocial support for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation is often limited, and financial compensation “non-existent”.

“It is a very unsatisfactory situation,” Sooka said. “The women are usually left on their own.”

Despite a flurry of new initiatives following a string of high-profile sexual abuse scandals, power imbalances within the aid sector have not been addressed, Stephanie Draper, chief executive of Bond, a network of UK organisations involved in international development, said in a statement.

“There needs to be more diversity across organisations, including women in positions of power,” said Draper. “During humanitarian crises reporting mechanisms also need to be rapidly developed in partnership with women and local communities."

In an interview with local Congolese media on Wednesday, government spokesperson Jolino Makelele described the abuse uncovered as “abject”, adding, “I have no words to describe this behaviour.”

After the reports of the sexual abuse and exploitation were broadcast on local radio, residents in the eastern Congolese city of Goma told TNH they wanted the perpetrators to be punished. 

“It was violent, awful abuse before women could be hired,” said a market trader who gave her name as Da Mamy. “The government should hold these people accountable for what they did to our population.”

Additional reporting by Rodolphe Mukundi in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.

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