WHO responds to sexual exploitation allegations

by mcardinal

Lauren Moye, FISM NEWS


The World Health Organization (WHO) responded on Tuesday to sexual exploitation allegations made against WHO employees who served in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during the years of 2018-2020.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus apologized to victims during a press conference:

What happened to you should never happen to anyone. It is inexcusable. It is my top priority to ensure that the perpetrators are not excused, but are held to account.”

The press conference was held in connection with the sexual exploitation report released by an independent commission on that same day. Described by Ghebreyesus as a “harrowing read,” the report tells how the commission interviewed 75 alleged victims about more than 80 allegations of exploitation during DRC’s Ebola crisis.

This investigation looked at allegations made during August 2018-June 2020. The allegations involve at least 21 people connected to WHO and include nine different rape accusations.

“The review team has established that the presumed victims were promised jobs in exchange for sexual relations or in order to keep their jobs,” commission member Malick Coulibaly said. 

The official report tells that victims ranged in age from 13 to 43, with an average age of 20. Described as belonging to “precarious economic and social situations,” these women and some men were pressured to perform sexual acts to obtain a much-needed job in connection with WHO. Many of them would then undergo further exploitation to retain their jobs.

Alleged victims reported 29 pregnancies in connection with their sexual exploitation allegations. The commission’s report tells that some of these women would then be coerced into abortions, “if necessary, by giving them drugs or even injections.”

One woman with the pseudonym of “Clarette” in the report revealed that she continued the pregnancy, but lost her parent’s funding for continuing education.

Co-chair of the investigation Aïchatou Mindaoudou stated at the press conference that some people at higher levels of the WHO “were aware of what was going on and did not act.”

The official report details that a woman reported her pregnancy by a WHO official on April 23, 2019 but that no investigation began because there had been no written complaint filed against the official. The report notes a “systematic tendency to reject” verbal reports of sexual exploitation made during the time in question.

Ghebreyesus promised to help the victims access needed services after their exploitation, including accessing psychological help and assistance with their children’s education. The WHO Director-General said, “I deeply regret that the suffering of victims may have been exacerbated by the apparent failings in the way the Organization handled reports.”

Confirmed perpetrators have been banned from future WHO employment and four contract terminations have been made so far. Ghebreyesus also plans to notify officials in both Congo and the home countries of suspected perpetrators of the rape allegations.

WHO also promised to take action to address the failures of management and staff that led to widespread sexual exploitation. Ghebreyesus said, “The conduct [the report] describes is a sickening betrayal of the people we serve. We are acutely conscious that we need to rebuild trust with the people we serve, with our Member States, with our partners, and with our workforce.”

Esperence Kazi, the coordinator of a group advocating for the victims, said, “We encourage the WHO to continue and show the community that its personnel who abused women and their daughters in our community have been genuinely, severely punished.”