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WHO calls in experts to decide on conflicting Ebola sex abuse reports

‘The restrictive approach favoured by WHO is an absurdity.’

Pictured is the emblem of the WHO (World Health Organization) placed outside their headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Guilhem Vellut/Flickr

The World Health Organization is asking experts to weigh in on two conflicting reports into the alleged culpability of managers over their handling of sexual abuse allegations involving WHO staff during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


Dr. Gaya Gamhewage, WHO’s director for prevention and response to sexual misconduct, also aired frustrations on Tuesday during a UN press conference in Geneva about the pace at which the UN’s investigative unit, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), is investigating and updating the organisation on other cases related to the Ebola response. 


The scandal, first reported by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2020, was one of the largest in the UN’s history, involving more than 100 women and girls who said aid workers lured them into sex-for-work schemes in the midst of the crisis. 


Roughly 60% of women interviewed as part of The New Humanitarian’s investigations accused WHO workers. The WHO says around a third of the victims and survivors it has identified pointed a finger at the agency.


After The New Humanitarian’s reporting, the WHO appointed an independent commission to investigate the cases. The commission’s report, issued in September 2021, found that several managers knew of exploitation and didn’t report it. It also detailed a number of shortcomings in WHO policies and protocols that allowed the abuse to occur. 


The UN’s investigative unit, OIOS, meanwhile, has been conducting separate investigations into abuse allegations levelled against all agencies involved in the Ebola response, and into managerial misconduct.


Its recent report concluded that three WHO managers didn’t violate agency rules in handling a sexual exploitation case involving a UN doctor buying land for a woman he allegedly impregnated, due to what critics called a “loophole”.


“Whatever we do now is probably not enough for those victims and survivors.”


Because the woman wasn’t a direct beneficiary – a person receiving humanitarian assistance from the WHO – the managers weren’t obliged to report the case even though the doctor was accused of sexually exploiting the woman, the Associated Press reported. The same doctor was named by two separate women The New Humanitarian spoke to in 2019 and 2020.


This allowed the three suspended managers to return to work, the WHO said.


“The UN OIOS investigation did not substantiate the allegations of managerial misconduct or negligence by WHO managers,” a WHO spokesperson said in an emailed response to The New Humanitarian on 1 March.


This week, the two women who investigated the claims as part of the WHO’s independent commission criticised the agency that appointed them.


“The restrictive approach favoured by WHO is an absurdity,” Aïchatou Mindaoudou and Julienne Lusenge said in a statement reported by The Associated Press, adding that ambiguities in policy should be “interpreted in favour of potential victims of sexual exploitation and abuse, with the view of maintaining accountability.”


The WHO’s Gamhewage told reporters on Tuesday that the WHO was seeking advice from an advisory committee that reports to its executive board to reconcile the “inconsistencies” between the UN report and the WHO-commissioned one.


“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,” Gamhewage said.


OIOS has not issued a report on its separate investigations into sexual abuse cases. 


“We are waiting very expectantly for the investigation report from UN OIOS. Because this has gone on long enough,” Gamhewage said.


Tuesday’s press conference was intended to highlight the steps the WHO has taken to help victims and survivors of sexual abuse in DR Congo – steps that include offering legal aid, counselling, and outreach through contracts with three partner agencies.


“Whatever we do now is probably not enough for those victims and survivors,” Gamhewage told reporters. “I acknowledge that as a human being.”


Edited by Irwin Loy.

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