Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Cloud Still Hovers over WHO as WHA75 Kicks Off
(On right): Magda Robalo, Global Managing Director at Women in Global Health outlines gender and sex abuse issues facing WHO, hours before the 75th World Health Assembly convened.

Over 20 babies have been born as a result of sexual exploitation and abuse by World Health Organization (WHO) staff and contractors in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the global health body, cannot yet move on from the two-year-old scandal.

Addressing the WHO’s stained record of sexual exploitation abuse and harassment remains unfinished business for the global health body – in the wake of the scandal that plagued the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) between 2018 and 2020.

That was just one of a number of key messages to emerge from Sunday’s pre-World Health Assembly briefing, organized by the Geneva Graduate Institute’s Global Health Centre and the United Nations Foundation

Charting a path to the Triple Billion

Open Briefing to 75th WHA:  Agnes Soucat of the French Development Agency (center) and WHO’s Abdou Salam Gueye (right) discuss the global architecture for health emergencies response.

The briefing focused around WHO’s ‘Triple Billion targets’, looked at how the global health agency could achieve universal health coverage for 1 billion more people worldwide in coming years (Pillar 1); improved emergency response (Pillar 2); and better health and wellbeing (Pillar 3); with key speakers from WHO, donors, and civil society.

At the sessions, new modes of financing UHC access were explored by Kate O’Brien of WHO and Ghitnji Gitahi, of Amref Health Africa. WHO’s Abdou Salam Gueye and Agnes Soucat of Agence France du Developpement discussed a White Paper proposal by the WHO for reforms that would, among other things, support a new World Bank fund for ready finance of vaccines and treatments in low- and middle-income countries during future outbreaks and pandemics.

Gueye also stressed the need for more coordination between WHO’s Africa Regional Office and the African Centers for Disease Control to advance a wide range of agendas, from health systems strengthening to medicines access. He said that he recently visited Africa CDC at its Addis Ababa headquarters to discuss the possibility of a new coordination mechanism between the two groups.

“We said what we want to do and they said what they want to do. When we checked, it was so interesting and we could complement each other at many points. We need better streamlining in order to know what the other is doing, and where we can really put our forces together and succeed,” Gueye told the audience in Geneva. “What we need is just to have a coordination mechanism where what needs to be done will be clarified, and also people will work together in a complementary manner.”  

Meanwhile, WHO’s Ben McGrady and Mohammed Eissa, part of the student-driven International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFSMA) talked about how to better integrate environmental factors driving ill health, such as air pollution, as well as commercial drivers, such as the aggressive marketing of tobacco, alcohol and sugary drinks, into WHO’s own agenda as well as country priorities.

Ensuring justice for DRC victims

Better WHO governance was a “fourth pillar” discussed at the briefing – including follow-up on the still outstanding questions around the investigation into the DRC victims of sexual abuse and exploitation by WHO staff and consultants during between 2018 and 2020. Some 75 Congolese women were reportedly sexually exploited, abused, and/or harassed by 25 WHO workers deployed to assist the DRC in its response to the Ebola outbreak that occurred in eastern DRC between 2018 and 2020.

Magda Robalo, Global Managing Director for Women in Global Health, noted that the WHA’s 75th session, which began Sunday, would need to review progress made so far to address the DRC scandal, and ensure that WHO investigations bring justice to the victims and prevent the abuse of vulnerable populations in the future. 

“The drama around sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment is one of the issues that we need to collectively work together on eliminating. When we say eliminating, we know we cannot eradicate it. The DRC Ebola case brought to light something that happens every single day in humanitarian emergency situations, but also in development contexts. There are other cases in other countries where this is happening,” said Robalo. 

“There is no justice for the victims. And that’s totally unfair.” 

sexual exploitation drc
The DRC sexual exploitation and abuse scandal occurred during the WHO’s response to the 2018 – 2020 Ebola outbreak.

The global health body has admitted to failures in its response to sex scandals following accusations of “common sexual exploitation and abuse”, leading to calls for reform of internal justice at the WHO. A final report by an Independent Oversight Advisory Committee (IOAC) of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme also advised the global health body to reform accountability systems to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse.

Robalo emphasised that the WHO and other development bodies needed to ensure that workers hired to protect vulnerable populations do not abuse them because they have power.

WHO quickly addressed  the DRC scandal

WHA75 which commenced Sunday afternoon, is expected to discuss sexual harrassment, abuse and exploitation, among other issues.

Once the sexual abuse came to light, the WHO “quickly developed a management response plan to address the situation”, according to Robalo, who reported on a town hall meeting addressed by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus a month earlier on progress made to address the issue and protect the populations that are at risk of becoming victims. 

“They established the department for preventing sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment with an interim director. We hope that there will be a permanent appointment so that the department can be staffed and work on these issues,” she said. 

Pressure to see justice for victims 

Even though the WHO can still do more, she observed that WHO’s member states also have a role to play. 

“Very often, when these cases are coming to light, you see a disconnect between the outcomes and recommendations from the reports and action from the Ministries of Justice and the structures in the countries where those victims are living, which needs to be taken on board by the government,” she added. 

Addressing this, she said, would require continuing working on ensuring that the right policies and right actions are in place to prevent sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment in humanitarian emergency settings, but also across the development world.

“We need to continue putting pressure, following up and demanding that action is taken until the response management plan is implemented, but also that we see justice for the victims. That’s very important for the survivors,” she concluded.

Image Credits: WHO AFRO.

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