WHO faces rape claims amid new accusations of mass sex abuse among aid workers

·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·3-min read
A picture taken on May 8, 2021 shows a sign of the World Health Organization (WHO) at the entrance of their headquarters in Geneva amid the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)
The WHO is facing new sex abuse and exploitation claims in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

The World Health Organization (WHO) is facing new sex abuse and exploitation claims against aid workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Reuters reported that 22 women in the city of Butembo have made allegations, including rape and unwanted pregnancies, against male aid workers responding to the Ebola crisis between 2018 and 2020.

Fourteen of the women said the men were from the WHO, which has also been prominent in its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Reuters reported one woman as saying she was raped by a man who said he was from the WHO. 

Others told reporters they had become pregnant, with one dying after a botched abortion. Abortion is illegal in the country.

Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus arrives by helicopter at Ruhenda airport in Butembo, to visit operations aimed at preventing the spread of Ebola and treating its victims, in eastern Congo Saturday, June 15, 2019. The World Health Organization on Friday said the Ebola outbreak is an
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, arrives at Ruhenda airport in Butembo during the Ebola outbreak in 2019. Some 22 women in Butembo said they were abused by aid workers during the Ebola crisis. (AP/Al-hadji Kudra Maliro)

Another woman told the news agency she was offered a job at the WHO in exchange for sex, which was then expected after she became employed as a cleaner. 

She told Reuters that after she became pregnant, the man responsible ceased contact with her and she ended up having an abortion.

WHO spokeswoman Marcia Poole was quoted as saying: “WHO is committed to taking prompt and robust action, including collaborating with relevant national authorities on criminal proceedings, in all cases where WHO staff may be found guilty of perpetrating [abuse and exploitation].”

In September last year, 51 women in the nearby city of Beni made similar allegations against aid workers, with at least 30 saying workers from the WHO were involved.

Watch: WHO 'knew about sex abuse claims in Congo'

At the time, the WHO said it was “outraged” by the reports, saying it has a “zero-tolerance policy with regard to sexual exploitation and abuse”.

It said in a statement: “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.

“Anyone identified as being involved will be held to account and face serious consequences, including immediate dismissal.”

It said director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had commissioned a review into the allegations.

A sweeping report by UK MPs in January found sexual exploitation was endemic in the aid sector, which they dubbed the "last safe haven" for abusers.

MPs launched the inquiry after being frustrated over the sector's failure to stem sexual exploitation and abuse in the wake of the 2018 Oxfam sex scandal in Haiti, where the charity's staff were accused of using sex workers, some underage.

In April, Oxfam was back in the news, this time with two senior managers in Congo suspended amid accusations of sexual exploitation, bullying, and fraud.

No women in Butembo told reporters they had been abused by Oxfam workers, but the charity said it had confirmed one of 51 cases reported in Beni last year, which involved a woman who said she was raped by an Oxfam worker.

TOPSHOT - A health worker gets ready to perform medical checks inside an Ebola Treatment Centre run by The Alliance for International Medical Action (ALIMA) on August 11, 2018, in Beni. (Photo by John WESSELS / AFP) (Photo by JOHN WESSELS/AFP via Getty Images)
Congo suffered an Ebola outbreak between 2018 and 2020. (John Wessels/AFP via Getty Images)

Oxfam said the man was no longer working for the charity, and that the woman was being given assistance. 

The charity said it could not comment further on the separate investigation into allegations against its Congo staff.

"Aid workers knew what was happening," said one former Oxfam worker, who was part of the Ebola response in Congo and spoke on condition of anonymity. 

"There were reports made about this behaviour. It was happening everywhere."

Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman to U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres, said:"We are doing everything possible to improve accountability and end sexual exploitation and abuse through strong prevention and response measures, centred on victims and survivors." 

Additional reporting by Reuters.

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