Global humanitarian organisations – including the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations (U.N.) children’s agency UNICEF – have launched investigations into claims of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during the 2018-2020 Ebola crisis on the back of a year-long investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian.
Five of the seven U.N. agencies and NGOs, named by more than 50 women in the expose, have now launched inquiries, with the WHO – the organisation levelled with the largest number of allegations - saying that all claims would be "robustly investigated" and anyone found to be involved faces serious consequences, including instant dismissal.
Following this initial response, the WHO's Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, announced that the organisation was setting up an Independent Commission to "swiftly establish the facts, identify and support survivors, ensure that any ongoing abuse has stopped, and hold perpetrators to account".
UNICEF said it had launched an inquiry and was sending a team to help, with the IOM, World Vision and the medical NGO also vowing to conduct investigations. The two other international aid groups mentioned by the women were Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières.
The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for the allegations to be "investigated fully".
In interviews, 51 women - many of whose accounts were backed up by aid agency drivers and local NGO workers - recounted multiple incidents of abuse, mainly by men who said they were international workers.
The majority of the women said numerous men had either propositioned them, forced them to have sex in exchange for a job or terminated contracts when they refused. At least two women said they became pregnant and some women said the abuse occurred as recently as March 2020.
The expose follows repeated commitments from the U.N. and NGOs to ramp up efforts to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian operations. Yet prior to speaking to journalists, none of the women had reported their allegations - pointing to social stigma and a lack of trust that the aid agencies would hold their abusers to account. Many women were also unaware of how they could even report the incidents.
The allegations have elicited outrage on social media and sparked a global discussion on what more needs to be done by NGOs to better protect vulnerable people, with experts calling for an increased vetting of aid workers and the necessary resources to tackle power imbalances head-on.
Following the release of the investigation, the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian gave evidence to UK lawmakers seeking to stamp out abuse in the aid sector. The UK has since banned sexual relations between government staff giving aid and people receiving it, and Britain's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has also banned staff exchanging money or jobs for sex, sexual relationships based on "inherently unequal power dynamics", and those between its staff and aid project partners.
The claims have also prompted support for the women: Jane Connors, the UN Victims’ Advocate, said she would work to ensure that those who came forward received medical care, psychosocial support, and legal assistance. SOFEPADI - a Congolese women’s rights NGO - announced on Twitter that it was available to provide legal support to victims.
The investigation has been widely reported in the DRC and has received worldwide media coverage from international outlets including The New York Times, Al Jazeera, Le Monde and The Sydney Morning Herald, as well as featuring on the front page of The Times and across the BBC:
Our global news coverage on women’s rights focuses on stories that help to empower women and bring lasting change to gender inequality. Read our latest news here.