A World Health Organization investigation has found that dozens of women were allegedly sexually abused and exploited by international staff and locals hired to respond to an Ebola outbreak in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The WHO appointed a five-member independent commission in October 2020 to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by its staff in Congo’s Ituri and North and South Kivu provinces.
Senior WHO officials call the results, released Tuesday, horrifying and heartbreaking.
The commission found that more than 80 alleged cases of sexual abuse occurred during the outbreak between August 2018 and June 2020. Most of the victims were uneducated women ages 13 to 43.
Commission member Malick Coulibaly said most of the women who testified said they had been forced to exchange sex for the promise of a job. He said some of the sexual exploitation and abuse was organized through a network operating through the local branch that recruited people to work on the Ebola response.
“Most victims did not get the jobs that they were promised in spite of the fact that they agreed to sexual relations,” Coulibaly said through an interpreter. “Some women declared that they continued to be sexually harassed by men and they were obliged to have sexual relations to be able to keep their job or even to be paid.”
Coulibaly added that some women had been dismissed for having refused sexual relations. The panel reports nine women were raped.
Women who were interviewed said none of the perpetrators had used birth control, and some who became pregnant said the men who had abused them forced them to have abortions.
The investigation found 21 of the 83 alleged perpetrators were WHO staff, some Congolese, some from abroad. The other alleged perpetrators were contractors such as drivers and security personnel.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the document as harrowing reading.
“The conduct it describes is a sickening betrayal of the people we serve,” he said. “It is my top priority to ensure that the perpetrators are not excused but are held to account. … And I will take personal responsibility for making whatever changes we need to make to prevent this happening in future.”
Tedros said four WHO staff have been fired and two have been put on administrative leave. He said the alleged perpetrators of rape will be referred to national authorities in Congo for investigation.
The WHO chief also said that all victims of sexual exploitation and abuse will have access to the services they need, including medical and psychosocial support, and that assistance for their children’s education will be provided.