WHO to probe sex abuse by aid workers in DRC amid Ebola outbreak
Al Jazeera News :
The World Health Organization (WHO) has promised to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by people identified as health and aid officials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where the global body is trying to stop the spread of the Ebola virus.
The WHO said it is "outraged" and promised the charges will be "rigorously investigated" in a statement released on Tuesday.
"The betrayal of people in the communities we serve is reprehensible. We do not tolerate such behaviour in any of our staff, contractors or partners," read the statement. "Anyone identified as being involved will be held to account and face serious consequences, including immediate dismissal."
The statement came after the news website The New Humanitarian released a report in conjunction with the Thomson Reuters Foundation in which more than 50 women accused aid workers from the WHO and non-governmental organisations operating in DRC of both improperly propositioning women and of demanding sex in exchange for being hired for a job.
The WHO statement did not specifically mention the report, and would not say if it had received complaints against staff or contractors during the Ebola response.
The WHO was in charge of efforts to control an Ebola outbreak in eastern DRC between August 2018 and the end of June this year. During that time, 3,481 people were infected with the haemorrhagic fever and 2,299 people died.
It was the 10th Ebola outbreak the country had seen. This one was particularly difficult to bring under control due to fighting between various rebel groups and the government there.
Since the end of the Ebola mission, there has been a new outbreak in western DRC.
Strategies put in place by the United Nations and NGOs to end such behaviour largely failed during the outbreak, aid officials and workers, gender analysts and researchers said.
Fifty-one women told the nearly year-long investigation that they were sexually exploited or abused by mostly foreign men identifying as aid workers in Beni, the hub of the outbreak.
Not one said she knew of a hotline, email address or person to contact to report the incidents.
"Knowing the poverty of the population, many consultants amused themselves by using sexual blackmail for hiring," said one WHO employee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
In the investigation, the largest number of accusations - made by 30 women - involved men who identified themselves as being with the WHO.
Other organisations named by women included UN Children's Fund UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Oxfam, World Vision, UN migration agency IOM, medical charity ALIMA and DRC's health ministry.
While ALIMA and World Vision also promised to investigate, most of the others said they needed more information to follow up. Police heard rumours of abuse but no victim came forward, said commander Lokango Ebaleongandi in Beni.
In a survey as part of the investigation, 18 agencies involved in the Ebola response said they had received no complaints of sexual exploitation. Six groups said they had received a total of 22 allegations, six of which were substantiated.
"If you're not getting reports, then something is going wrong," said Jane Connors, a long-serving UN staffer who in 2017 became its first victims' advocate, based in New York.
Aid sector experts blamed a male-dominated operation with little funding to combat sexual abuse, vast income and power imbalances, and a failure to win locals' trust - problems seen in numerous other emergency responses.
From Bosnia to Haiti, reports of sexual abuse and exploitation scandals have shaken the aid sector for decades - denting the trust of local populations, donors and taxpayers.
In DRC, few women believed they could get justice. Many said they could not afford to lose their jobs while others feared being stigmatised by family or community.
"The fear of retribution is so high," said Alina Potts, a researcher at the Global Women's Institute at George Washington University and a former aid worker. "They need to have a lot of trust in that overall system to come forward."
Up to 80 percent of survivors globally - not just those in humanitarian crises - do not report sexual assault for a range of reasons, said Miranda Brown, formerly with the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"Typically, survivors and victims do not use standard reporting mechanisms but report to persons of trust."
Aid agencies deployed thousands of workers into eastern DRC when Ebola erupted, sensitive to criticism of acting slowly in the 2014-16 outbreak in West Africa.