A report co-produced by The New Humanitarian, a non-profit human rights news agency, and Reuters on Tuesday said that 51 women in the Democratic Republic of Congo have accused World Health Organization (W.H.O.) personnel, along with representatives of several aid agencies and non-governmental organizations, of using the Ebola crisis as an opportunity to sexually exploit them.
The report included interviews with the 51 women, plus corroborating accounts from local and international witnesses, covering the period from 2018 to March 2020.
“The majority of the women said numerous men had either propositioned them, forced them to have sex in exchange for a job, or terminated their contracts when they refused,” the report said.
The authors interviewed women who said the abuse was well-known, widespread, and often directed at the most vulnerable women in the Ebola outbreak region:
Women said they were plied with drinks, others ambushed in offices and hospitals, and some locked in rooms by men who promised jobs or threatened to fire them if they did not comply.
“So many women were affected by this,” said one 44-year-old woman, who told reporters that to get a job she had sex with a man who said he was a W.H.O. worker. She and the other women spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. Some identifying details have been removed to protect their identities.
“I can’t think of someone who worked in the response who didn’t have to offer something,” she added.
Some women were cooks, cleaners, and community outreach workers hired on short-term contracts, earning $50 to $100 a month – more than twice the normal wage. One woman was an Ebola survivor seeking psychological help. At least two women said they became pregnant as a result of their abuse.
The authors darkly noted that their report was focused on only a single town at the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak, suggesting more stories of abuse could be uncovered in other towns.
The largest number of abuse claims were leveled at men who said they worked for W.H.O., followed by men who claimed to work for the Congolese Ministry of Health. Other men accused in the report said they were affiliated with World Vision, UNICEF, the ALIMA medical charity, Oxfam, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), and Doctors Without Borders, commonly known by its French acronym MSF. Some of the men were Africans, while others were said to hail from Europe and Canada.
The authors implicitly allowed for the possibility that some of these men could have misrepresented their affiliations and national origins to the women they sought to manipulate, although they interviewed aid agency drivers who said they were frequently required to shuttle women to “sexual arrangements.”
“It was so regular, it was like buying food at the supermarket,” one driver for an aid agency said. Another spoke of a doctor who asked him to bring young men to restaurants and hotels.
The women claimed sexual predators simply hung around the places where employment was offered, such as hospitals and supermarkets, and swooped in when they saw women who were “visibly disappointed at being passed over for jobs.” Others cornered women who were already in their employ and told them sex was a requirement for keeping their jobs or getting promoted.
Some of the women were Ebola survivors or Ebola widows. The W.H.O. describes the sexual transmission of Ebola virus as a “strong possibility,” meaning the alleged assaults may have helped spread the virus.
“They hired you with their eyeballs. They’d look you up and down before they’d make an offer,” one woman said.
An anonymous W.H.O. employee told Reuters that the Ebola response brought thousands of jobs to the impoverished DRC, and “many consultants amused themselves by using sexual blackmail for hiring.”
The New Humanitarian and Reuters skeptically noted that W.H.O. and other NGOs claimed they received “few or no claims of sexual abuse or exploitation against their workers in the Congo” and insisted they have “zero tolerance” policies against sexual abuse.
After the publication of the report, World Vision and ALIMA announced they would open internal investigations, with World Vision executives describing the allegations as “shocking.” A spokesman for WHO said the allegations in the report are “under review.”
UNICEF said it has received some complaints against staffers for two of its partner organizations, but they were not the same as the ones in the New Humanitarian/Reuters report.
“Despite our best efforts, cases of sexual exploitation and abuse in DRC remain grossly under-reported,” said a UNICEF spokesman, adding that the organization has established numerous ways for confidential complaints to be filed in the Congo.
The women interviewed for the report generally said they were unaware of such confidential reporting methods. They said they feared not only the loss of employment if they spoke up, but also stigma and retribution from their families and communities.
DRC Health Minister Eteni Longondo told Reuters he has not received any reports of sexual exploitation by aid workers.
“I ask any woman who is asked for this kind of sexual abuse and exploitation services to denounce it, because it is not allowed in Congo. If it is a health worker who is involved in this case, I personally will take care of it,” Longondo said.
The report authors said that despite these denials and pledges of zero tolerance for sexual abuse, “reports of such behavior continue to surface” in places like Haiti, the Central African Republic, Bosnia, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The report quoted reformers who said that only donors and taxpayers can compel these organizations to deliver the zero-tolerance crackdowns they constantly promise.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for the allegations in the report to be “investigated fully,” but Reuters skeptically noted that Guterres has launched high-profile initiatives to combat sexual abuse by U.N. and partner agencies over the years, and the abuse keeps happening.
One of those initiatives was a 2017 command for all U.N. entities to report abuse allegations to Guterres in “real time” using a sophisticated Internet database, but a spokesman for Guterres conceded that WHO “has only just ‘now’ agreed to post their allegations.”
The U.N. and agencies like W.H.O. certainly had reason to suspect the Ebola response team in the DRC merited exceptionally close scrutiny. The Congo was described as the “epicenter” of the U.N. sexual abuse crisis in a September 2017 report by the Associated Press, which counted over 700 abuse and exploitation complaints against U.N. peacekeepers and other personnel in the Congo over the previous 12 years.
“With rare exceptions, victims interviewed by the AP received no help. Instead, many were banished from their families for having mixed-race children, who also are shunned, becoming a second generation of victims,” the Associated Press wrote at the time.