WHO to Share Information with Congolese Court in Sexual Abuse Cases of 13 Women
WHO’s Gaya Gamhewage on a visit to the Congolese city of Goma in November 2022, one of the hotspots of the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak, where she committed to supporting the survivors of sexual assault and their families.

Gaya Gamhewage, the agency’s lead official in prevention and response to sexual misconduct, describes WHO’s recent moves to bring justice to DRC’s victims. 

In a long-awaited move, the World Health Organization (WHO) is preparing to share files with the Congolese courts on the sexual exploitation and abuse complaints of 13 women who are pursuing criminal cases in local courts against WHO-linked Ebola responders that they say exploited and abused them.

The abuse is alleged to have happened during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). 

In a wide-ranging interview with Health Policy Watch, Gaya Gamhewage, WHO’s new director of Prevention and Response to Sexual Misconduct, spoke about WHO’s new initiatives to root out sexual misconduct from the Organization, also rebutting recent media reports that WHO has been foot-dragging on the pursuit of offenders in the DRC and had failed to liaise with DRC officials.  

Failings in WHO and other UN systems for preventing and managing sexual misconduct complaints have emerged as a major issue following revelations in 2020  by The New Humanitarian that dozens of women in the DRC has been sexually exploited, and even raped, by WHO, UN and other responders during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak, leaving behind a trail of victims, at least 20 of whom later bore children.

A scathing report by WHO established the Independent Commission in September 2021 found that 21 out of the 83 identified perpetrators were linked to WHO. The report also found major shortcomings in WHO’s processes for preventing, reporting and managing cases. It called for investigations against alleged perpetrators and managers and “disciplinary sanctions” for those found culpable.  

But WHO was unable to take action in DRC courts against the alleged perpetrators until the victims of abuse themselves decided to act, explained Gamhewage, who took over in 2021 as acting director of WHO’s newly formed Department for the  Prevention and Response to Sexual Misconduct at the height of the scandal. 

This is what just 13 women finally did, by accessing legal aid services by a local women-led NGO contracted by WHO and granting WHO permission to share their confidential information with local courts. 

Women pursuing cases are part of a larger group

Ebola responders raise awareness about the deadly disease in Beni, DRC, at the height of the 2018-2020 pandemic.

The 13 women are part of the larger group that testified in 2021 to the Independent Commission about the widespread patterns of abuse by men, who took advantage of UN, WHO staff or consultancy positions to obtain sex in exchange for money or jobs, in some cases raping local women as well.  

“Those [files] are being transferred directly to the courts that have asked us to provide them,” Gamhewage said. “Our WHO Legal Department received a letter from the courts that are prosecuting these cases, and now, because we’ve just received the victim’s consent, we are in the process of transfer.”  

Files from the ongoing investigation by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (UN OIOS), which is investigating all 83 DRC victims’ claims, will also be shared by WHO in relation to the same 13 survivors who have granted their permission, but those investigations are yet to be completed, she added.    

Gamhewage also noted that WHO has been providing medical, social and legal support to all identified victims of abuse, regardless of whether their alleged perpetrators were in fact affiliated with WHO or other agencies that responded the Ebola outbreak.

As the lead agency in health emergencies, WHO has borne the brunt of media attention in the scandal but only a quarter of the actual claims were linked to WHO staff or consultants.

“The total number of victims/ survivors identified by the Independent Commission is 83. Of those, 21 were associated with WHO at the time and the rest were perpetrators allegedly from other agencies,” Gamhewage said.

Seven WHO consultants were already dismissed 

Ebola responders at the height of the DRC outbreak in full protective gear.

The legal action being pursued locally in DRC is only one element in the spectrum of organizational disciplinary actions, Gamhewage also stressed.  

Seven WHO consultants were dismissed in the immediate aftermath of the Independent Commission report.

“Where there was enough evidence, we were able to terminate the contracts of consultants who were accused,” she said. “And when the UN OIOS investigation reports are provided to WHO, we will take disciplinary action against our personnel in every [other] case in which allegations of SEA are substantiated,” she pledged.

In addition, the names of 14 former WHO staff or consultants identified as alleged perpetrators by the Independent Commission were posted on the UN ClearCheck database

Through the database, some 33 UN entities share information about individuals who have “established allegations” related to sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, with the aim of preventing their re-employment in the UN system. 

WHO is liaising with DRC government  

Meanwhile, WHO also has been liaising with DRC government officials on the handling of the cases, Gamhewage asserted.

She contested recent media reports  that the DRC government was uninformed, noting that she had personally traveled to the DRC in mid-March to brief officials and meet local NGOs to review the package of support that had been provided so far, and discuss options for more extended support to the survivors.  

However, on 24 March, just  days after her visit, a sudden DRC Cabinet reshuffle occurred, and that meant the process had to start all over again.  

“In just the previous week, I was with the Health Minister, I sat in his office and I briefed him. And we had a very good agreement on how to move forward,” recalled Gamhewage. “But then the government changed, so of course now we have to have a new conversation. I hope to have an opportunity to brief them again very soon.”

‘We realized we had to do something’ 

When Gamhewage took over her new role in 2021, she had a three-pronged aim: to find ways to support DRC victims; build WHO’s internal SEAH investigative capacity; and stimulate more effective outreach and education to prevent sexual misconduct from occurring.    

The painstaking work on the ground to support the DRC abuse victims took over a year, Gamhewage said. It involved reaching women in remote parts of conflict-ridden DRC, explaining to them their options, and connecting them with local support groups,

In early 2022, WHO engaged a DRC legal aid organization to advise women who wished to pursue legal claims. In parallel it struck a deal with HEAL Africa, a health foundation based in the eastern DRC city of Goma, to provide emotional, physical or social support to women who wished to have such services.  

“All in all, WHO provided victim and survivor support – medical, psychosocial, legal and income generation support to 115 survivors who claimed they had experienced SEA regardless of which agency the alleged perpetrator belonged to,” she underlined.

Regarding legal action, “in November 2021, and January 2022, we realized we had to do something while we were waiting for the [UN OIOS] investigation, so we transferred money to the UNFPA, to HEAL Africa, and to a women-led NGO that provides legal aid. And 13 of the survivors have now started pursuing justice through the legal aid NGO we hired in [local] legal systems,” she said. 

WHO’s Survivor Assistance Fund is unique in the UN system 

WHO’s Survivor Assistance Fund, established in September 2021 just after the Independent Commission report was published, covered the costs. She notes that the new fund is unique in the UN system insofar as it disperses funds directly – thus enabling “the fast allocation of funds to support victims and survivors of sexual misconduct” regardless of where they live.  

“The UN has a Trust Fund that supports United Nations and non-United Nations entities and organizations that provide victim assistance and support services and provides grants to NGOs that provide services to SEA survivors,” she observes. “But WHO is the only agency that has a fund for direct support, which can be accessed by individual survivors.”

‘When the UNIOS reports are provided, we will take disciplinary action’   

She stressed, however, that the victims’ consent to share information with local courts was essential for any local legal action – and that also took time.  

“When the survivors were initially interviewed [by the Independent Commission], they only gave consent for the information to be shared with WHO, not with the national authorities,” Gamhewage pointed out.  

 “So now, what we are doing is that we are collaborating on those 13 cases because we have consent. And as soon as we have the UN OIOS reports, we’ll hand those over too. 

“Our plan is whenever we get a victim’s consent for their information to be shared with the government, we will hand that over through the proper channels.  

Victim-centered approach  

“WHO is committed to transparency in its zero tolerance approach to sexual misconduct,” the UN’s health body said.

Gamhewage rebutted claims that its response to sexual abuse victims in the DRC had been different than its treatment of claims in headquarters. 

Just last Monday, WHO announced the dismissal of the senior official Temo Waqanivalu, accused of sexually harassing the young British doctor, Rosie James, at the World Health Summit in Berlin last October.

A decision on that case was issued within a period of just six months – the organization’s new benchmark for resolving claims.  

The process in DRC has taken much longer, she admits. In terms of the investigative process, WHO has little control since the high-profile DRC cases, uniquely, were turned over to the New York City-based UN OIOS, operating under the auspices of the UN Secretary General .

But more generally, Gamhewage also contends that in the case of DRC, any outreach to victims that was not carefully planned in advance could also have boomeranged: “It wouldn’t be victim-centered, and they could be put in danger.  

“Even when we gave victim support, to identify these women in the villages, we had to be very careful and the case managers had to be very careful not to stigmatize them.

“So, it’s actually a balance between protecting their rights, their wishes, but also their safety. And you know, survivors are, in a very, very tough area characterized by armed conflict, population displacement and extreme vulnerability and hardship.” 

‘If you take shortcuts, everybody loses’ 

Gaya Gamhewage at a UN press conference on March 3, 2023, describing WHO’s moves to better prevent and respond to sexual misconduct.

“Obviously if you are a survivor, you want this over as soon as possible, but these cases unfortunately take a long time.… It is from a victim/survivor point of view, very long.  

“But investigations also have to be robust; they have to be done properly. So if you take shortcuts, then everybody loses. What we aim for is a solid process that does not take too long, is fair and protects the rights and due process for all parties. Only by doing that will disciplinary action not be overturned on internal or external appeal.

“And do you know how difficult it is to access people, even for survivor support?  Sometimes it took five days [of local travel] to reach a community where the survivor was.” 

Even so, she concedes that before the recent changes in the system were made, “like most agencies, we took far too long for any investigation. We conducted an external audit to understand the real picture and took action to strengthen our investigation capacity.  But we set an ambitious benchmark, and we tested it.

The new six-month benchmark for the investigation of sexual abuse and exploitation cases from start to finish applies “wherever they occur in the world,” she asserts, rejecting the suggestion of a double standard. 

That time frame includes 120 days for investigation in sexual misconduct cases and another 60-80 days for a final decision on disciplinary action.

“In fact we’re [now] the only UN agency to set a benchmark of 120 days.”   

Broader overhaul of programme to prevent and respond

The DRC cases, meanwhile, have triggered a much broader overhaul of WHO’s system for preventing and responding to cases of sexual misconduct, she argues, echoing points made by WHO’s Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at WHO’s Executive Board meeting in late January.  

The Organization hired more investigators for its Internal Oversight Services (IOS) department – and accelerated investigations clearing a backlog of sexual misconduct cases – not including the DRC complaints being handled by the wider UN OIOS team. 

As for critics who contend that some of the new WHO investigators are inexperienced, and only working as short-term consultants, she said: “It takes time to create posts, approve organigrams. But in the interim, what did we do?  Because of the urgency, we hired qualified consultants as ‘surge’ capacity. They are a multi-disciplinary team experienced in trauma-informed, survivor-centered approaches to investigating sexual misconduct and other abusive conduct.”

But over the long term, she maintains, WHO is developing a core team of permanent staff investigators specialized in sexual misconduct cases, who can be “supplemented if we need with surge capacity in the form of consultants.”  

“So we are now transitioning into a more stable way of moving forward. This, you can see in the confidence in the system by the number of people coming forward to a system that they didn’t trust before. 

“And of course, it can get better, and we would love to learn and improve, but the proof is that people are coming forward, compared to the past when they thought it was futile to raise a complaint,” she says, with reference to the gradual rise in the numbers of new complaints over the past year – including sharp rises in the African and Eastern Mediterranean regions.  

Meanwhile, the backlog of sexual misconduct cases that existed previously has been eliminated, she says. Although as the WHO dashboard on investigations reflects, there remains a backlog in WHO investigations into other forms of abusive conduct, in terms of sexual misconduct “we are working the cases in real time, and they are coming in mostly under 120 days. 

And excluding the DRC cases, WHO has dismissed eight personnel for sexual misconduct over the past seven months – more than ever before for a comparable period, Gamhewage pointed out.

Investments in education and training – online and in countries 

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks at the 152nd Executive Board meeting, 31 January about WHO’s reforms in prevention and response to sexual misconduct cases.

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has publicly committed to a budget of $25 million a year for prevention and response to sexual misconduct, she adds. So far, that has included funding for the hiring of 20 full-time staff – along with the appointment and training of some 350 part-time focal points in 127 WHO country offices.  

A new policy on preventing and responding to sexual misconduct was issued in March 2023.  That policy clearly places not only direct WHO beneficiaries of aid, but also members of the wider public who are abused or exploited by a WHO staff member or consultant, as within its scope.  

“All WHO country offices are now mandated to complete at least one risk assessment for sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment every year, and all personnel must take mandatory training and be subject to screening in the UN ClearCheck database that aims to prevent the re-hiring of sexual misconduct offenders.

“And new standards and requirements have been set for health emergencies as the risk of sexual misconduct is high in humanitarian settings,” she says.

Finally, the WHO has also invested in new public education programmes for prevention of sexual misconduct – an area of work that was just a “box to check” during the 2018-2020 Ebola response, according to DRC responders who spoke with Health Policy Watch after initial revelations of the abuse. 

More than 30,000 participants have already engaged in WHO’s  live webinar series  #NoExcuse, through the OpenWHO.org online learning platform – which targets not only WHO and UN staff but also the broader audiences of civil society and health workers engaged in emergency response. 

“This is a platform where people can learn as well as ask tough questions about the system and policies openly,” said Gamhewage. “It is supplemented by country-level training and visits.”  

‘I cannot accept that we who are privileged…can also be the ones that harm’

Community advocates raise awareness about Ebolavirus on the outskirts of Beni, DRC in 2019 – an area wracked by poverty as well as armed conflict.

Gamhewage, who is leading the entire effort since July 2021, built her own reputation over two  decades at WHO as a skilled corporate coach, communicator and educator – teaching scientists and other staff to speak to the media, each other, and stakeholders about complex health topics in clear and understandable language.  

During the early days of the COVID pandemic, she was drafted to lead vital training and capacity building activities for the WHO Health Emergencies team, including the OpenWHO platform, followed by strategic development of online WHO Academy. The latter is now the world’s largest free open-source public health learning platform, offering some 200 public health courses, and with 7.5 million subscribers. 

A Sri Lankan born medical doctor and a public health professional, who has a reputation in WHO for frankly speaking her mind, she previously worked for Save the Children in her home country, as well as leading community health work in more than 15,000 communities for a large national NGO.

In terms of her latest mission, many challenges remain: 

“While WHO gets its own house in order, we have to work better as the UN and humanitarian systems to address persisting problems – lack of effective community-based complaints mechanisms, poor or absent victim and survivor services and last but not least, inadequate collaboration or poor engagement with governments in countries where we operate,” sayd Gamhewage.  

“We are just at the start of a long, hard journey. I did not ever expect that I would have to do this job but now that I have that responsibility, I am fully committed to doing everything I can to change our systems, our culture and anything else that is required. Like most WHO colleagues, I cannot accept that we who are privileged to serve people can also be the ones that harm them.”

Image Credits: Naomi Nolte IFRC emergency communication coordinator, WHO, Twitter/@OMSDRCONGO, World Bank Group/ V.Tremeau.

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