WHO Details $15m Plan to Prevent Sexual Exploitation and Abuse – Putting ‘Victim at Heart’ of Response   
WHO, other UN and humanitarian agencies recruited hundreds of staff to respond to DRC’s 2018-2020 Ebola response who received little or no real training in how to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse.

The World Health Organization would allocate some US$ 15 million annually to ramp up training programmes for WHO staff and consultants in the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA), beginning with ten countries that have the “highest risk” profile, according to a draft plan under discussion with member states. 

The proposed “Management Response Plan”, presented to WHO member states in a closed door meeting last week, will focus on “putting the victim and survivor at the heart of prevention and response to SEA,” said a WHO spokesperson, who shared new details of the plan with Health Policy Watch on Monday.

The WHO plan  was developed in response to the recent findings of an Independent Commission that found widespread WHO staff and consultants supporting the agency’s response to the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo had raped, harassed, and traded sex for jobs and other favours with Congolese women.  

“The findings reported by Independent Commission are horrifying,” the spokesperson added, echoeing statements made by senior WHO officials when the Independent Commission’s findings were first published. “WHO apologises unreservedly to the victims and survivors of these appalling events, as well as to their families and communities. 

“WHO is committed to ensuring the survivors get the support and assistance they need.  WHO will take every measure in its power to bring perpetrators to account, including referring to and collaborating with relevant national authorities on any criminal proceedings.”  

Accountability in reform of WHO culture  

Gaya Gamhewage, WHO director of Prevention and Response to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, at the 28 September press briefing on the findings of the Independent Commission.

The new plan outlines a series of “immediate” actions to be taken between mid-October and end March 2022, including: “completing investigations, taking urgent managerial action and launching a series of internal reviews and audits,” the spokesperson said.

Medium term, from mid-November 2021 to end December 2022, the plan will prioritize: 

  • Embedding a “victim- and survivor-centred approach, framework and services”;
  • Establishing and enforcing “accountability and capacity of WHO personnel, managers and leaders for prevention and response to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment (PRSEAH)”; 
  • Reform of WHO structures and cultures. 

A new PSEA focal point has already been dispatched to the eastern DRC, which reported its second Ebola case last week following the end of the 2018-2020 epidemic that struck Ituri and North Kivu provinces.

Other countries to be immediately prioritized for the training include: Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Venezuela, and Yemen, WHO said. 

Prevention was just a Box to be “Ticked” – Former UN worker tells Health Policy Watch 

The Commission’s findings, published last month, found that some 83 emergency responders to DR-Congo’s 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak, including at least 21 WHO employees and consultants, had likely abused dozens of Congolese women, obtaining sex in exchange for promises of jobs, as well as raping nine women – some of whom later became pregnant and gave birth. 


The Commission was formed in the wake of an investigation by The New Humanitarian and Thomson Reuters Foundation in September of 2020, which found evidence of widespread sexual abuse among the WHO and other UN responders – who used their positions of power to leverage sex from DRC women. 

The epidemic was a perfect storm for such abuse since the same UN agencies and humanitarian groups that had hired hundreds of local and international workers to respond to the deadly emergency also  failed to provide any real training in the sensitive balances of power that their new jobs entailed, one former UN PSEA counselor told Health Policy Watch in an interview.   

“It was a tick, it was a tick box exercise of like, Oh, we’ve got someone doing it, someone’s attending the meetings,” said the former UN worker, who asked not to be identified.

She said the lack of sensitivity to the risks of sexual exploitation by men freshly hired and empowered by their jobs was widespread among UN and humanitarian response groups – although WHO as the largest agency on the ground, also became the lightning rod for spreading rumors about abuse. 

Ebola response activities in DRC involved the massive recruitment of new WHO and UN staff – who received little or no training in how to use their positions of power in workplace relationships.

Senior UN Agency heads displayed little interest in the quality or extent of preventative training offered to the new response teams – leaving it to a handful of PSEA focal points to design and execute their own programmes. 

“I’d go out in person, and explain what is the difference between sexual harassment and sexual exploitation and abuse, and why that’s not the same; what is ok and what is not ok, and what the reporting mechanisms are; and what we mean by zero tolerance,” the former PSEA worker said.  

“But they [my supervisors] never even asked me about anything that I did until the New Humanitarian article came out.  By that time, I’d already left. I’d finished my contract – but suddenly they were interested in what the f-k, I was doing this whole time?” 

Plan to be developed as a three-year strategy  

Following feedback from member states, WHO’s new abuse and exploitation prevention plan is due to be published within the next few days.   

But it will remain a “living document” “drawing on the learnings during its implementation as well as on the experience of other UN Agencies, partners and Member states,” the WHO spokesperson said.

Ultimately, WHO will develop a full-fledged three year strategy, for the years 2023-2025, the spokesperson said. 

“WHO has allocated an initial US$7.6 million to immediately strengthen its capacity to prevent, detect and respond to SEA, in ten countries with the highest risk profile: Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Venezuela, and Yemen,” the spokesperson said.   

“WHO is also committing additional funds to address the longer-term surge in capacity that we need to implement the MRP. An initial estimate is that we’ll need about US$15 million a year, but we are still working on the details,” the spokesperson added. 


Image Credits: WHO AFRO, WHO AFRO/Twitter, WHO.

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