On the 29th of September, the UN World Health Organization reported that it was investigating claims of sexual exploitation and abuse against WHO staff in the context of the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Fifty-one women have now come forward regarding the claims, with most cases occurring in Beni, the city at the centre of the country’s worst Ebola outbreak from June 2018-present.
The claims made by the women were investigated by two journalists from The New Humanitarian news agency and the Thomas Reuters Foundation respectively. Alongside the WHO, claims have been made against Congo’s ministry of health, World Vision, UNICEF, ALIMA, Oxfam, the UN’S IOM agency & MSF. Out of 22 allegations reported, against ALIMA, IMC, WFP, UNICEF and REMED – so far only 4 agencies are under investigation.
The women say the exploitation began when they were approached at locations where successful job applicant lists were posted in public spaces – hospitals, supermarkets, job centres, and from there they would be asked to work as cleaners, cooks and community outreach providers for charity staff with the possibility of earning twice the national monthly salary.
From their position of subservience, the women claim sex was either propositioned to them in exchange for promotion/employment or they were forced into sexual intercourse with workers, and fired if they refused.
The CARE International group, a gender-issues research group, found through discussions with hundreds of Congolese citizens that sexual exploitation by charity workers during the Ebola outbreak was a “consistent finding”.
The WHO responded saying it was “outraged” at the claims, promising a “robust investigation” and has re-emphasised it has a “zero-tolerance policy with regard to sexual exploitation and abuse”. However, whilst this scandal will disappear with the news cycle, it will take a lot longer for the communities in the Democractic Republic of Congo to heal from both a catastrophic epidemic and an plague of sexual abuse.