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WHO vows cultural overhaul after Ebola sexual abuse scandal

‘I am committed to ensuring that the suffering of the survivors and their families is the catalyst for a profound transformation of WHO’s culture.’

(Eric Bridiers/US Mission)

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The World Health Organization has promised to overhaul its culture and operations in the wake of a sexual abuse and exploitation scandal involving many of its workers during the 2018-2020 Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Immediate steps will be taken to support survivors and their families. Other measures include specialist training for WHO staff, and internal audits to determine if there was additional negligence or misconduct, according to an announcement made on Thursday.

Four WHO staff have already been dismissed, and two other senior staff have been put on administrative leave pending internal investigations.

An independent inquiry into the allegations was triggered last year after an investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation found that more than 70 women had allegedly been lured into sex-for-work schemes by aid workers during the Ebola response. 

More than 50 of the women interviewed by The New Humanitarian accused WHO workers. Women also accused men from Congo’s Ministry of Health and several other aid organisations, including: UNICEF, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, World Vision, ALIMA, the International Organization for Migration, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and the International Medical Corps (IMC).

Investigators working for the independent commission turned up 80 cases, including nine rapes. One of those raped was a 13-year-old girl. Of the 80 cases uncovered by the independent investigators, 21 workers implicated were confirmed as WHO workers, the commission said. 

WHO staff knew of the sexual abuse allegations in early May 2019, but it wasn’t until October 2020 that an independent commission was established – a month after The New Humanitarian published its first investigation. A second was published this year.

Although the commission was established in October 2020, it took investigators nearly seven months to start interviews in Congo, where Ebola killed some 2,300 people in Ituri and North Kivu provinces between August 2018 and June 2020 – the second deadliest outbreak ever.

The commission’s final report, released in late September, raised serious questions about the WHO’s top leaders, and why they were unaware of the extent of the problem. Reporting from The New Humanitarian included testimonies from several aid workers who said the sex-for-work schemes were an open secret.

“I am committed to ensuring that the suffering of the survivors and their families is the catalyst for a profound transformation of WHO’s culture,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, said in a statement released on Thursday. 

“This plan outlines the changes we will make as an organisation to make good on this commitment and to create a culture in which there is no opportunity for sexual exploitation and abuse to happen, no impunity if it does and no tolerance for inaction.”

The WHO committed to providing “livelihood support” for victims and survivors, including comprehensive medical and psychosocial support. It also said it would help victims learn a trade, provide resources for them to start small businesses, and support children born as a result of sexual abuse through educational grants and medical care. 

The WHO also announced it was allocating an initial $7.6 million to strengthen its capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse allegations in 10 countries with the highest risk profile. Those included: Afghanistan, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Venezuela, and Yemen. 

Probes to determine if WHO staff failed to initiate investigation procedures – an allegation made in the independent commission’s report – will continue.

In the past week, nearly 40 WHO and UN partner employees have received training for the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, the WHO said.

Additional training is underway. 

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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It was The New Humanitarian’s investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation that uncovered sexual abuse by aid workers during the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo and led the World Health Organization to launch an independent review and reform its practices.

This demonstrates the important impact that our journalism can have. 

But this won’t be the last case of aid worker sex abuse. This also won’t be the last time the aid sector has to ask itself difficult questions about why justice for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation has been sorely lacking. 

We’re already working on our next investigation, but reporting like this takes months, sometimes years, and can’t be done alone.

The support of our readers and donors helps keep our journalism free and accessible for all. Donations mean we can keep holding power in the aid sector accountable, and shine a light on similar abuses. 

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