GOMA, Congo (AP) — Two experts appointed by the World Health Organization to investigate allegations that some of its staffers sexually abused women during an Ebola outbreak in Congo dismissed the U.N. agency’s own efforts to excuse its handling of such misconduct as “an absurdity” on Monday, saying they were not satisfied that no senior officials have been fired.
Some of the victimized women say — nearly four years later — they are still waiting for the WHO to terminate those responsible or be offered any financial compensation.
In October 2020, Aichatou Mindaoudou and Julienne Lusenge were named by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to head a panel investigating reports that some WHO staffers sexually abused or exploited women in a conflict-ridden region of Congo during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak.
Their review found there were at least 83 perpetrators of abuse who worked for WHO and partners, including complaints of rape, forced abortions and the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl, in the biggest known sex abuse scandal in the U.N. health agency’s history.
The panel also found that three WHO managers mismanaged a sexual misconduct case first reported by the Associated Press, involving a U.N. doctor signing a contract to buy land for a woman he allegedly impregnated.
A confidential U.N. report submitted to the WHO last month concluded that the managers’ handling of that case didn’t violate WHO’s sexual exploitation policies, because the woman wasn’t considered a beneficiary of WHO aid since she didn’t receive any humanitarian assistance.
“The restrictive approach favored by WHO is an absurdity,” Mindaoudou and Lusenge said in a statement, adding that any gaps or ambiguity in those policies should be weighed in favor of the victim to ensure the agency is held accountable.
Anifa, a Congolese woman who worked at an Ebola clinic in northeastern Congo, said she was offered a job at double her salary in exchange for sex with a WHO doctor and was still traumatized by the experience.
“How many times do I have to speak before (the doctors) at WHO responsible for the sexual abuse are punished?” she asked. “If WHO does not take radical measures, we will conclude that the organization has been made rotten by rapists.”
Anifa, who didn’t share her last name for fear of reprisals, said she didn’t expect any financial compensation from the WHO, explaining that “money will not erase the wounds I have in my heart.” She reported the alleged misconduct to the WHO in 2019, but never received a response.
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WHO chief Tedros has said repeatedly the agency has a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual misconduct.
Mindaoudou, a former government minister in Niger and Lusenge, a human rights activist in Congo, also slammed the WHO for its failure to punish any senior staffers linked to the abuse.
“We are not satisfied,” they told the AP. “The ‘zero tolerance policy’ does not mean engaging in subterfuge to make sure no one is responsible for sexual abuse and exploitation.”
Paula Donovan, who co-leads Code Blue, which seeks to hold the U.N. accountable for sexual offenses, said it was striking that experts appointed by the WHO itself were so openly critical of the agency.
“Two courageous African women exposed sky-high levels of tolerance for misogyny and racism at the top of WHO,” she said. “Now it’s up to governments to launch their own truly independent investigation into the organization’s leaders, beginning with Dr. Tedros, to root out the poison infecting WHO.”
When allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation surfaced in the press in September 2020, Tedros said he was “outraged” and that anyone found to be involved would face serious consequences. WHO emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan claimed the agency had “absolutely no details” of the abuse.
But the internal U.N. report noted that Tedros was informed of sexual abuse allegations in 2019 and that some cases of alleged misconduct were discussed by senior WHO staff shortly after they occurred.
The WHO has refused to comment on the internal U.N. report and the agency created a new department to prevent misconduct after the Congo sex abuse scandal. Dr. Gaya Gamhewage, who heads that work, told U.N. investigators that prior to being appointed, “sexual exploitation and abuse were not familiar terms to her.”
Tedros said earlier this month that the agency has established a $2 million fund to help survivors of sexual abuse in Congo, but it’s unclear how many women have obtained assistance.
Jeanette, a woman who says she was impregnated by a WHO doctor while working at an Ebola center in Butembo, said she was pressured into having an abortion, which nearly killed her. She said she is waiting for the WHO to punish the doctor responsible for her pregnancy and has had no offers of financial compensation.
“I don’t have the strength to work since the abortion,” she said. “WHO should know that their staffers are flatterers, freeloaders and liars.”
Maria Cheng reported from London. Krista Larson contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.