Two experts appointed by the World Health Organization to investigate allegations that some of its staffers sexually abused women during an Ebola outbreak in Congo have dismissed the U.N. agency’s own efforts to excuse its handling of such misconduct as “an absurdity.”
Some of the victimized women say — nearly four years later — they are still waiting for WHO to fire those responsible or be offered any financial compensation.
In October 2020, Aichatou Mindaoudou and Julienne Lusenge were named by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to head a panel investigating reports that some WHO staffers sexually abused or exploited women in a conflict-ridden region of Congo during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak.
Their review found there were at least 83 perpetrators of abuse who worked for WHO and partners, including complaints of rape, forced abortions and the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl, in the biggest known sex abuse scandal in the U.N. health agency’s history.
The panel also found that three WHO managers mismanaged a sexual misconduct case first reported by the Associated Press, involving a U.N. doctor signing a contract to buy land for a woman he allegedly impregnated.
A confidential U.N. report submitted to WHO last month concluded that the managers’ handling of that case didn’t violate WHO’s sexual exploitation policies, because the woman wasn’t considered a “beneficiary” of WHO aid, since she didn’t receive any humanitarian assistance.
“The restrictive approach favored by WHO is an absurdity,” Mindaoudou and Lusenge said in a statement, adding that beneficiaries of WHO “should only be interpreted in favor of potential victims of sexual exploitation and abuse, with the view of maintaining accountability.”
Anifa, a Congolese woman who worked at an Ebola clinic in northeastern Congo, said she was offered a job at double her salary in exchange for sex with a WHO doctor and was still traumatized by the experience.
“How many times do I have to speak before [the doctors] at WHO responsible for the sexual abuse are punished?” she asked. “If WHO does not take radical measures, we will conclude that the organization has been made rotten by rapists.”
Anifa, who didn’t share her last name for fear of reprisals, said she didn’t expect any financial compensation from WHO, explaining that “money will not erase the wounds I have in my heart.” She reported the alleged misconduct to WHO in 2019, but never received a response.
Mindaoudou, a former government minister in Niger and Lusenge, a human rights activist in Congo, also slammed WHO for its failure to punish any senior staffers linked to the abuse, saying there was a “culture of impunity” at the organization.
When allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation surfaced in the press in September 2020, Tedros said he was “outraged” and that anyone found to be involved would face serious consequences. WHO emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan claimed the agency had “absolutely no details” of the abuse.
But the internal U.N. report noted that Tedros was informed of sexual abuse allegations in 2019 and that some cases of alleged misconduct were discussed by senior WHO staff shortly after they occurred. Tedros himself travelled to Congo 14 times during the outbreak and said he was personally responsible for WHO’s Ebola response.
To date, no senior managers at WHO linked to the sexual misconduct have been fired; Tedros said last month that because the U.N. report found there was no evidence managers acted improperly, three suspended officials returned to work.
WHO has refused to comment on the internal U.N. report, but Tedros has said repeatedly that he has “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse and exploitation, pointing to the creation of a new department to prevent misconduct. Dr. Gaya Gamhewage, who heads that work, told U.N. investigators that prior to being appointed, “sexual exploitation and abuse were not familiar terms to her.”
Tedros said earlier this month that the agency has established a $2 million fund to help survivors of sexual abuse in Congo, but it’s unclear how many women have obtained assistance.
Jeanette, a woman who says she was impregnated by a WHO doctor while working at an Ebola center in Butembo, said she was pressured into having an abortion, which nearly killed her. She said she is waiting for WHO to punish the doctor responsible for her pregnancy and has had no offers of financial compensation.
“I don’t have the strength to work since the abortion,” she said. “WHO should know that their staffers are flatterers, freeloaders and liars.”