The Global Heroes


9th June 2020 By The Global Heroes Conflict

More than 20 Congolese women have accused aid workers of sexual abuse in new claims that include rape and unwanted pregnancies, with UN investigators uncovering similar allegations of workers exploiting vulnerable women.

  • At a glance: Fresh allegations in the Ebola aid worker scandal

  • More than 20 women report sexual abuse by aid workers in Butembo.
  • The World Health Organization faces 14 claims, including rape.
  • Another woman reportedly died after a botched abortion.
  • Seven organisations are named, including three UN agencies.
  • Most of the aid workers allegedly involved are Congolese.

The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to 22 women in Butembo who said male aid workers responding to an Ebola crisis in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo offered them jobs in exchange for sex.

The claims come as donors pressure aid groups to do more to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse while giving assistance to the world’s most vulnerable, and follow a joint investigation by reporters last year during which 51 women in the nearby eastern city of Beni made similar allegations.

Several workers have already been dismissed in the wake of the initial investigation by The New Humanitarian and Thomson Reuters Foundation. Aid organisations said several other investigations were underway.

Fourteen of the 22 women in Butembo – an aid hub during the Ebola outbreak – said the men identified themselves as workers with the World Health Organization, one of the lead agencies in the crisis, which killed 2,200 people between 2018 and 2020.

“WHO is committed to taking prompt and robust action, including collaborating with relevant national authorities on criminal proceedings, in all cases where WHO staff may be found guilty of perpetrating [sexual exploitation and abuse],” said WHO spokeswoman Marcia Poole.

A total of seven organisations were named, including two other UN agencies.  

One woman said she was raped by a man who said he was with the WHO, and reporters learned of three others who said they had become pregnant.

About this investigation

After revealing multiple cases of abuse last year, our ongoing reporting has uncovered an even more widespread system of exploitation. ...

One of those women died after a botched abortion attempt as she tried to conceal the pregnancy from her husband and children, her sister said.

Another woman said she drank a poisonous concoction to terminate her pregnancy – common in Congo, where abortion is illegal. 

“If I give you work, what will you give me in return?” read a WhatsApp message shared with reporters by the woman.

She said the message was from a Congolese man she met in a bar in 2019, who had arrived in a vehicle with the WHO logo. 

The message continued: “You are a woman. I think you know what you can give me.”

The woman said she had sex with the man and was then employed by the WHO as a cleaner. She said after she was given work she was expected to sleep with him regularly. 

When she became pregnant, the man blocked her on WhatsApp and she ended up having an abortion, she said. 

‘Sexually exploitative relationships’

The WHO said the UN’s investigative Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) had identified two women in Butembo as “potentially having had sexually exploitative relationships with individuals connected to WHO”.

It said the information would be shared with an independent commission set up in October to investigate claims of sexual exploitation and abuse during Congo’s Ebola outbreak.

In response to the allegations of rape, pregnancy, and the woman’s death from abortion-related complications, the WHO said it had been instructed to refer all allegations relating to the response during that time period to the commission.

“The commission will take the lead in investigating these allegations and will issue recommendations to the Director-General,” Poole said in an email.

“Clearly, there is a gap in the number of allegations [reporters] received and those reported. There may be a number of reasons for this – from reporting mechanisms that needed improving, to victims’ reluctance to speak up.”

A spokeswoman for the independent commission, Kadidia Coulibaly, said its team began investigating on the ground in early May, and the commission aimed to publish its report at the end of August.

Read more → EXCLUSIVE: More than 50 women accuse aid workers of sex abuse in Congo Ebola crisis

Coulibaly said the commission “will spare no efforts” in reaching out to all victims and gathering their details and testimonies “with the utmost security, comfort and discretion”.

“The presumed culprits, once identified, will also be heard by the investigating commission according to international standards,” she said in emailed comments.

Reporters in Butembo conducted more than 40 interviews with the 22 women, aid workers, hotel staff, and others who worked in the Ebola response over a five-month period. A total of 23 women were involved, including the mother who died from an abortion.

Most women were hired as cleaners in Ebola treatment centres, where they would disinfect clothing and bedding for the sick and for responders. Others went to villages where they burned the belongings of Ebola victims or worked in awareness campaigns.

Medical records and phone messages were also reviewed by reporters to cross-check information and rule out copy-cat testimonies.

Full names were given for nine men and partial names for seven. Four of the men were thought to be foreign aid workers and 18 were Congolese, most from the capital, Kinshasa.

Facebook profiles matched some men’s names with the organisations they said they worked for.

Some of the women showed reporters their identification badges with organisations’ logos and photos of them doing jobs they said they were given after having sex with the men.

Robert Flummerfelt/TNH
Scenes from the town of Butembo in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

‘Last safe haven’

In September’s investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Beni – 60 kilometres northeast of Butembo – the 51 women said dozens of men, mostly foreigners, had coerced them into having sex in exchange for jobs.

The majority of those claims were also against men who said they worked for the WHO, which initially said the allegations stemming from the investigation were under review internally and encouraged the women involved to contact the WHO.

The following month, the health agency announced the creation of the independent commission “to swiftly establish the facts, identify and support survivors, ensure that any ongoing abuse has stopped, and hold perpetrators to account”. 

WHO spokeswoman Poole said “appropriate” action would be taken once the commission delivered its findings. 

A sweeping report by British lawmakers in January found sexual exploitation and abuse was endemic in the aid sector, which they dubbed the “last safe haven” for abusers.

Investigation by the numbers

Lawmakers launched the inquiry after being frustrated over the sector’s failure to stem sexual exploitation and abuse in the wake of the 2018 Oxfam sex scandal in Haiti, where its staff were accused of using sex workers, some underage.

In April, Oxfam was back in the news – this time with two senior managers in Congo suspended amid accusations of sexual exploitation, bullying, and fraud.

No women in Butembo told reporters they had been abused by Oxfam workers, but the charity said it had confirmed one of the 51 cases reported in Beni last year, which involved a woman who said she was raped by an Oxfam worker.

Oxfam said the man was no longer working for the charity, and the woman was being given assistance. The charity said it could not comment further on the separate investigation into allegations against its Congo staff. 

“Aid workers knew what was happening,” said one former Oxfam worker, who was part of the Ebola response in Congo and spoke on condition of anonymity. “There were reports made about this behaviour. It was happening everywhere.”

“We are doing everything possible to improve accountability and end sexual exploitation and abuse through strong prevention and response measures, centred on victims and survivors,” said Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman to UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

A rape claim 

The latest allegations in Butembo also included a rape claim.

One woman said she thought she was going for a job interview. Instead, she said she was raped in a hotel room by a Cameroonian man who said he worked for the WHO. 

In 2019, the mother of four was told by a friend working for the WHO that her supervisor was looking to hire a new cleaner. 

There was one condition, said the friend: “No matter what he tells you, just agree.”

The two women went to the man’s hotel room. After a brief introduction, the friend took a phone call and abruptly left the room. 

The man quickly came to the point, the 32-year-old woman said: Have sex with him and she could have a job. 

She said she tried to leave, but the man blocked her.

“He pushed me onto the bed, forced himself on top of me, and started to take my clothes off. I tried to get out from under him, but he was so strong and he held me there. Then, he violated me,” she said.

“It was devastating. I thought I would come to talk about employment – like a job interview.”

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