After Ebola Scandal: Rooting Out Sexual Misconduct in WHO
Dr Tedros reporting on WHO efforts to root out sexual misconduct

A special unit to address sexual ‘misconduct’, a fund to support survivors in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and training for all staff are some of the steps taken by the World Health Organization (WHO) to rid itself of exploitative behaviour.

This follows the scandal that played out during the Ebola outbreaks in the DRC between 2018 and 2020, during which 83 women were sexually exploited and abused by WHO staff and allied agencies.

WHO Director-General told the global body’s Executive Board (EB) meeting on Tuesday that 90% of the 150 activities identified by the management response plan to address sexual “misconduct” – the catch-all phrase adopted by WHO – had been completed.

A $2 million fund has been set up to support 83 women in the DRC, some 20 of whom had given birth after their ordeals. Of the 83 women, 23 are “survivors of alleged sexual misconduct by WHO personnel and the other 60 are survivors of alleged sexual misconduct by employees of other agencies,” said Tedros, adding that the WHO was the only UN agency to have set up such a mechanism. 

“In DRC, we have worked with local organisations to reach more than 30,000 at-risk communities. We’re also offering free legal aid to survivors so they can pursue legal action,” he added.

Discrepancies between WHO and UN reports

However, Tedros said that there were a number of discrepancies between the WHO’s report and that of the UN Office of International Oversight Services (OIOS), which had also been investigating allegations of sexual misconduct during the Ebola outbreak in DRC.

According to Tedros, the OIOS had investigated the managerial mishandling of sexual misconduct in DRC and found “that the allegations of managerial misconduct against the three staff members identified by the independent commission were unsubstantiated”. 

“Those staff, who are on administrative leave, are returning to active service,” added Tedros, adding that the WHO has asked its independent external oversight advisory committee to help it to address these discrepancies with OIOS.

In relation to allegations of sexual misconduct by a WHO staff member during the World Health Summit in Berlin last October, Tedros said that the investigation team had completed its report and the case has advanced to the Global Advisory Committee.

“Once that Committee’s review is completed and if the allegations are substantiated disciplinary action will be taken,” said Tedros, who expressed regret that the media had identified the alleged perpetrator.

Dr Temo Waqanivalu, who heads WHO’s work on integrated delivery of noncommunicable disease services, was named by AP as the staff member who is reportedly the focus of a WHO investigation into the Berlin incident. A prior complaint had been made against Waqanivalu in 2017, but the WHO officials did little about it, according to the AP.

“Media reports indicating that at least one individual working in WHO recently alleged to have engaged in misconduct, and having had a record of prior accusations, really needs to be addressed by WHO,” said Loyce Pace, US Assistant Secretary of State for Global Public Affairs, at the EB.

“It’s important to many of us who have faced this personally, in our experience working in the global health and development space, and not just in terms of earlier in our careers, but even now, as seasoned global health professionals,” said Pace.

“There are many of us who stand with survivors and stand with those who identify as victims and are truly committed but also frustrated by where things have stood to date, and hope that we can all come together to do right by people like me, who have these stories to tell,” added Pace.

Loyce Pace, US Assistant Secretary of State for Global Public Affairs.

Zero tolerance

Some 90% of WHO staff had completed UN courses on sexual misconduct, while training had also been run for implementing partners and communities, according to Tedros.

As part of its reform of the policies, systems, structures and culture of WHO “to make zero tolerance a reality, not just a slogan”, all regional offices now have dedicated teams to work on sexual misconduct, he added.

Each of the 340 country offices had a focal person for sexual misconduct in all country offices, and all are being trained, while the head office’s department for the prevention of and response to sexual misconduct is “now fully staffed and coordinating our organisation-wide efforts”.

Tedros described reform of the Department of Internal Oversight Services (IOS) and the establishment of dedicated capacity for investigation of sexual misconduct as “one of the central and most impactful parts of our work in 2022”.

“The changes we have made have increased confidence and trust in our systems, as evidenced by tripling in the number of people coming forward with complaints from 166 in 2021 to 491 in 2022,” said Tedros.

“As promised, we cleared the backlog of sexual misconduct allegations by May of last year. The investigation team is now working on cases in real time because justice delayed is justice denied. We have set and have met a target of 120 days in which to complete investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct.”

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