Aid Workers In Democratic Republic Of Congo Accused Of Sexual Abuse, Says Investigation By The New Humanitarian

Over fifty women in the Democratic Republic of Congo have accused aid workers from the World Health Organization and leading international NGOs of sexual abuse and exploitation, concluded a year-long investigation led by the New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuter Foundation on Tuesday.

The report highlights how “common” sexual exploitation and abuse are in humanitarian settings like the DRC, where Ebola has killed over 11,000 people in its 10th and deadliest outbreak.

The investigation found “at least” 30 separate incidents of sexual abuse or exploitation from men that claimed they worked for the WHO, as well as UNICEF, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, World Vision, ALIMA, and the International Organization for Migration. The perpetrators were from Belgium, Burkina Faso, Canada, Côte d’Ivoire, France, and Guinea, among other countries, said the women.

Okapi Palace in Beni in the DRC was “favorite spot” for sexual misconduct

The report was based on more than fifty interviews with women in Beni, one of the epicentres of the DRC’s Ebola outbreak. The findings were corroborated by over a dozen aid agency drivers and NGO workers.

Many women were approached near supermarkets or job recruitment centres, and taken to hotels using official drivers hired by the aid agencies, said four chauffeurs, who wished to stay anonymous. Among the “favorite spots” for abuse included the Okapi Palace hotel and Hotel Beni, where aid groups frequently booked rooms and had offices.

One of the women interviewed said the man that abused her drove in a car bearing a World Health Organization logo, noted the report.

Sexual Exploitation “As Regular” As Buying Food In A Supermarket

Sexual exploitation in the region is a “consistent finding”, Nidhi Kapur, a consultant for aid group CARE International, said to The New Humanitarian.

“It [sexual exploitation] was so common,” added one driver. “It wasn’t just me; I’d say that the majority of us chauffeurs drove men or their victims to and from hotels for sexual arrangements like this. It was so regular, it was like buying food at the supermarket.”

But in the past two years, “most” of the three dozen international organisations and local NGOs in the area have received “no complaints” of sexual abuse or exploitation. They also emphasized that policies are in place to prevent and report sexual misconduct, through staff training, complaint boxes or reporting hotlines. 

However, most women interviewed said they did not know how to report sexual abuse or exploitation. Others never spoke up for fear of losing their jobs, acknowledging that sexual favors have become a “passport to employment”, especially given the lack of job opportunities for women in the region.

“In this response, they hired you with their eyeballs,” said one of the women that was interviewed. “They’d look you up and down before they’d make an offer [for a job].”

WHO, World Vision and Alima have pledged to investigate the allegations. WHO encouraged the survivors to reach out to the Organization. 

Dr Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus, the Organization’s Director-General, has begun a “thorough review” of the investigation’s allegations and into sexual abuse and exploitation more broadly in emergency response settings.

“The actions allegedly perpetrated by individuals identifying themselves as working for WHO are unacceptable and will be robustly investigated”, the WHO said on Tuesday in a press release. “Anyone identified as being involved will be held to account and face serious consequences, including immediate dismissal.”

–  See WHO’s press release on Tuesday.

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