WHO has Terminated Eight Staffers’ Contracts for Sexual Misconduct in Past Seven Months
Dr Gaya Gamhewage, Director, Prevention of Sexual Misconduct, WHO.

Four World Health Organization (WHO) staff or consultants had their contracts terminated as a result of sexual misconduct allegations in the last quarter of 2022 – the most of any year so far. 

The contracts of another three people had already been terminated between January and March of this year, Dr Gaya Gamhewage, WHO’s Director of Prevention and Response to Sexual misconduct, told the media on Wednesday. 

The revelations came on the heels of news on Monday that WHO had dismissed senior manager Temo Waqanivalu following the conclusion of a high-profile investigation of sexual misconduct charges, first brought by a British doctor who had attended the World Health Summit last October in Berlin. 

“In the last year, our investigation team acted on not just the cases that were highlighted in the media, but have completed 120 investigations into sexual misconduct,” Gamhewage said in the briefing, adding that “72 other investigations are ongoing.”

Gamhewage’s report was the most complete, in terms of numbers to date, of WHO actions since the agency WHO undertook a major revamp of its programmes for preventing and responding to allegations of sexual misconduct – including a major expansion of its investigations team. 

WHO overhaul came in wake of DRC sex scandal

The WHO overhaul came in the wake of media revelations of widespread sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, including cases of rape, by dozens of WHO and other UN responders to the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak. 

In 2021, after a scathing report by a WHO-mandated Independent Commission investigation pointing to major shortcomings in the agency’s  SEAH management,  WHO announced worldwide reforms in both its investigative and prevention policies. 

However while the Independent Commission report also called for “disciplinary sanctions” against the alleged DRC perpetrators found culpable, Gamhewage’s report on Wednesday did not include the outcomes of their cases. 

That’s because the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (UN OIOS) – and not WHO – are managing those cases separately and have yet to deliver their final reports, she said. 

“We are not investigating the DRC cases. They are all with UN OIS,” Gamhewage told Health Policy Watch in response to a follow-up question. “We can only take action once we receive their reports.”    

WHO changed ‘how we work, our structures, our culture’

But she asserted that WHO’s overhaul of its own internal systems was significant. 

“WHO started changing how we work, our structures, our culture, our processes over the last 18 months,” she said. 

“Because of the many changes we’ve made..having much stronger investigations capacity that is benchmarked, that’s fast and fair…providing better victim support …are having a cumulative effect that is changing our organization.” 

While acknowledging the role played by the media in breaking some of the taboos around addressing sexual misconduct, Gamhewage insisted that WHO also is “making changes with or without media spotlight.”

And she issued a warning to media who have been covering the trail of sexual misconduct cases at the organisation saying that some stories risked violating the rights of victims and alleged perpetrators. 

“I want to caution that the media spotlight should not harm the due process that is owed to everybody involved,” she said, referring to the right of confidentiality of both victims and survivors. 

“It’s only when we protect these things will the disciplinary action that we take a stand. Otherwise, it can be appealed and nobody will win,” she said. 

Her remarks were echoed by WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who added: “On the one hand, media helps; it’s the eyes and ears of the so keep doing that, we appreciate your work. On the other hand, I would like to stress that …. we see a lack of balance. In some of the reporting [there are] factual errors. And when we try to correct …  there is refusal from some of the media outlets even to correct the factual errors.” 

“So we believe that you are helping us, but at the same time, I would urge you to… really make journalism balanced.  And any factual issue you bring, we will take it seriously,” he promised.  

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.