Reports of sexual exploitation and abuse by health workers, including those from the World Health Organization (WHO), have surfaced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in recent weeks. Accounts from over 50 women, most of whom wished to remain anonymous for fear of ridicule and persecution, state that they had been raped and exploited by individuals who stated that they were health workers during the Ebola crisis in the DRC. Over 30 of the women have said that their violators presented themselves as working for WHO. Other victims have stated their attackers claimed they were from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as UNICEF, Médecins sans Frontieres (MSF), World Vision International (WVI), Oxfam, International Organization of Migration (IOM), and the Alliance for International Medical Action (ALIMA), according to a report by Reuters.
The accounts of sexual abuse range from 2018 to as recent as March 2020. Most of the reports come from the city of Beni in the north-eastern region of the DRC, which is the epicenter of the most recent Ebola outbreak, and where a majority of NGO healthcare workers are stationed. Many of the victims’ accounts say foreign looking men who claimed they were health workers raped them in order for the women to get a job, and that noncompliance with the men would lead to termination from their positions. Other accounts assert that they had been ambushed and assaulted around and inside hospitals or forcefully intoxicated and assaulted by health workers. According to The Guardian, there are multiple reliable witnesses to supplement these accusations, including other health workers and civilians.
A year-long investigation was conducted by The Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian regarding the reports. While the investigation looked into the situation, it only focused on Beni and not on other hotspots that NGOs gave aid to, The New Humanitarian points out According to Al Jazeera, the investigation released a survey to 18 of the organizations aiding in the area’s Ebola response, which claimed that they had received no reports of sexual misconduct or rape. However, many of the victims stated that they were unsure of who to contact about the situation, and many feared they would be ridiculed or accused of lying if they did report. Law enforcement officers in the area had heard rumors of abuse carried out by NGO workers, though they did not receive any reports from victims.
Now that reports on the situation have been released, the WHO, UNICEF, and IOM are addressing the claims openly, stating that they will investigate thoroughly into the matter. ALIMA and WVI have also committed to investigating the situation, according to Al Jazeera. The three NGOs state that any individuals found to be involved in the abuse or exploitation of civilians will face severe consequences and dismissal, the Guardian furthers. However, Al Jazeera furthers that the other NGOs listed in the accounts of sexual abuse, such as MSF and Oxfam, have not given a formal statement on the accusations, saying that they will need more information to conduct an investigation.
The WHO came out with a statement saying that it would not tolerate any form of assault or abuse against civilians by its workers, as any form of abuse goes against the WHO’s policies on misconduct. Reuters mentions how, despite many promises to eradicate abuse made by the United Nations and NGOs, there have been numerous ongoing reports of sexual assault by NGO health workers in other areas of the world, such as within Haiti and the Central African Republic.
Image courtesy of MONUSCO Photos (Wikimedia Commons)