Sally Hayden: DRC sex abuse scandal speaks to a wider problem

Women described being offered jobs such as cooks and cleaners in return for sex

At the end of September, World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made a historic apology. He addressed the victims of sexual abuse and exploitation by his staff in the DR Congo, saying: “I’m sorry for what was done to you by people who were employed by WHO to serve and protect you. I’m sorry for the ongoing suffering that these events must cause. I’m sorry that you have had to relive them in talking to the commission about your experiences. Thank you for your courage in doing so.”

Tedros was speaking to mark the publication of an independent report into sexual exploitation by UN and NGO staff during a recent outbreak of Ebola in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Between August 2018 and June 2020, 3,481 people were infected with the haemorrhagic fever, 2,299 of whom died, in what was the second largest Ebola outbreak ever.

Behind the obvious threat of the disease was another danger. As huge amounts of money and countless humanitarian organisations and UN agencies rushed to halt the spread of Ebola, at least 150 Congolese women have now gone on record saying they were sexually exploited by people involved in the response.

During his press conference, Tedros called this “inexcusable” and said it is now his top priority to ensure that the perpetrators are held to account. He also said he takes “ultimate responsibility”, both for the behaviour of WHO employees and for any failings in WHO’s systems that allowed this to occur. The WHO says it has adopted a “zero-tolerance” plan to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse in crisis zones. Last week, the European Union announced it was halting funds to the WHO in DRC because of the scandal.

That it was exposed at all is a testimony to the importance of good journalism. The allegations initially came to light in September 2020, when a report by the New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation revealed that more than 50 women said they were abused by Ebola aid workers, mostly from the WHO, but also Unicef, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, World Vision, Alima and the International Organisation for Migration. The women described being offered jobs as cooks, cleaners, and community outreach workers in return for sex, or threats that they would be fired if they did not comply. In its own report, the WHO found that 21 of 83 alleged perpetrators were employed by them, including both local and international staff. At least 29 women became pregnant; some were then forced to abort their pregnancies by their abusers.

DRC-based journalist Robert Flummerfelt, one of the team who exposed the scale of the abuse, wrote on Twitter this week saying that while the WHO apology was “certainly a world-historic mea culpa . . . it was also an emotionally potent, meticulously planned media spectacle.”

The greater problem is the whole structure of international aid and the power inequalities it exacerbates, he suggested. Along with the sexual abuse scandal, he said there were many other allegations about the DRC Ebola response exposed by other reporters, including that UN agencies and international aid groups made payments to armed groups, "terrorised" people with military escorts, and there was sweeping corruption.

“The longer we pretend global public health ought to rely on the sometimes-clueless and sometimes-maniacal manoeuvres of an elite seated in multi-million dollar offices in Geneva, the longer we’ll continuously subject ourselves to the horrific and demoralising exercise of discovering a new heinous ‘humanitarian’ scandal flickering through our news feed every couple of years,” Flummerfelt tweeted. “The world deserves better.”

That the scale of abuse was not reported earlier was partially because of the fear of retaliation, and the lack of faith that any action will be taken, felt by whistleblowers and aid beneficiaries. It also says something about how journalists often operate when reporting from situations like the DRC’s Ebola outbreak. Many of those who went there at that time (including me) travelled on facilitated trips with the UN. There were reasons why that was advisable, including that eastern DRC is an active conflict zone, but it meant we travelled in UN cars, stayed in UN-approved hotels, followed their itineraries and even did interviews while their staff were present.

When I was there, in 2019, I interviewed a 28-year-old Congolese woman employed by the WHO on a short-term contract to disinfect the homes of Ebola victims. She said she had been desperate for work. Days after our interview, she was let go. Other locals hired by international organisations also said their jobs were precarious and the duration uncertain.

But interviewees seemed much more guarded there than when I am reporting independently. Between 2017 and 2018, I travelled alone to refugee camps in Uganda, Kenya and Sudan – in each one, I heard numerous accounts of corruption, sexual exploitation or exploitation carried out by the people supposed to be helping the most vulnerable.

Last month, a new outbreak was confirmed in the same DRC region as the 2018-2020 one. So far eight people have contracted the disease and six have died. What lessons have been learned remains to be seen.