A panel commissioned by the World Health Organisation has identified more than 80 alleged cases of sex abuse during the UN health agency’s response to an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – including claims implicating 20 WHO staff members.
The panel released its findings on Tuesday, months after an Associated Press investigation found senior WHO management was informed of multiple abuse claims in 2019 but failed to stop the harassment – and even promoted one of the managers involved.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus appointed the panel’s co-chairs to investigate the claims last October, after media reports claimed unnamed humanitarian officials sexually abused women during the Ebola outbreak that began in the DRC in 2018.
At the time, Dr Tedros declared he was “outraged” and vowed that any staff members connected to the abuse would be dismissed immediately.
Speaking after the release of the findings, Dr Tedros said the document made for “harrowing” reading.
The AP published evidence in May showing that Dr Michel Yao, a senior WHO official overseeing the Congo outbreak response, was informed in writing of multiple sex abuse allegations.
Dr Yao was later promoted and recently headed the WHO’s response to the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, which ended in June.
WHO doctor Jean-Paul Ngandu and two other agency officials also signed a contract promising to buy land for a young woman Dr Ngandu allegedly impregnated. Dr Ngandu said he was pressured to do so to protect the WHO’s reputation.
The panel said that during its interview with Dr Tedros, he said he was made aware of the sex abuse allegations when they were revealed in the press, and had not heard of the incident involving Dr Ngandu until the AP published its story.
Some of the women who say they were victimised by WHO officials said they hoped those involved would be severely punished.
The report exposes the most widescale sexual wrongdoing linked to a UN institution in years, harkening back to the dark years when blue-helmeted peacekeepers were regularly accused of misusing their positions for sexual misconduct.
It described how “Jolianne” – said to be the youngest of the alleged victims – recounted that a WHO driver had stopped to offer her a ride home as she sold phone cards on a roadside in April 2019.
“Instead, he took her to a hotel where she says she was raped by this person,” the report said.
Shekinah, a young Congolese woman who claimed she accepted an offer to have sex with WHO doctor Boubacar Diallo in exchange for a job, said she hoped he would be sanctioned by the UN health agency and barred from working for it again.
“I would like him and other doctors who will be charged to be punished severely so that it will serve as a lesson to other untouchable doctors of the WHO,” said Shekinah, who declined to give her last name for fear of retribution.
“He has no place at WHO.”
Dr Tedros made 14 trips to DR Congo during the last outbreak and publicly commended Dr Diallo’s work.
The AP spoke with three women who alleged Dr Diallo offered them jobs in exchange for sex.
The independent panel’s report criticised belated training for staffers to prevent sexual abuse or exploitation, a refusal from managers to consider cases that were only provided verbally and not in writing, and other breakdowns and managerial shortcomings in handling the alleged misdeeds in nine separate cities or villages in the region.
Julie Londo, a member of the Congolese Union of Media Women (UCOFEM), an organisation that works to counter rape and sexual abuse of women in the DRC, applauded the WHO for punishing staff involved in the abuse allegations, but said more needed to be done.
“WHO must also think about reparation for the women who were traumatised by the rapes and the dozens of children who were born with unwanted pregnancies as a result of the rapes,” she said.
“There are a dozen girls in Butembo and Beni who had children with doctors during the Ebola epidemic, but today others are sent back by their families because they had children with foreigners.
“We will continue our fight to end these abuses.”