Women accuse aid workers of sexual abuse during the DRC’s Ebola crisis

More than 50 women have accused Ebola aid workers from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and leading nongovernmental organisations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an investigation by the nonprofit news agency The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation has revealed.

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, during the 2018 to 2020 Ebola crisis.

The women said men had either propositioned them, forced them to have sex in exchange for a job or terminated contracts when they refused.

The number and similarity of many of the accounts from women in the northeastern DRC, including the city of Beni, suggests the practice was widespread. Three organisations have promised to investigate the accusations.

Some women said they were plied with drinks or were ambushed in offices and hospitals, and some were locked in rooms by men who promised jobs or threatened to fire them if they did not comply.

“So many women were affected by this,” said a 44-year-old woman, who told reporters that to get a job she had sex with a man who said he was a WHO worker.

She and the other women spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. Some details have been removed to protect their identities.

“I can’t think of someone who worked in the response [to the Ebola outbreak] who didn’t have to offer something,” she added.

Some women were cooks, cleaners and community outreach workers hired on short-term contracts, earning $50 to $100 a month — more than twice the normal wage. One woman was an Ebola survivor seeking psychological help.

At least two women said they became pregnant.

The WHO said it was reviewing a “small number” of sexual abuse or exploitation reports in the DRC but declined to say whether they may have taken place during the Ebola outbreak in the northeast of the country, which ended in June after more than 2 200 deaths.

A WHO spokesperson said the allegations stemming from the investigation were under review internally and encouraged the women involved to contact the WHO.

Many women said they had never reported the incidents for fear of reprisals or losing their jobs. Most also said they were ashamed.  

Some women said abuse occurred as recently as March.

“We would not tolerate such behaviour by any of our staff, contractors or partners,” said WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib, reiterating the agency’s “zero tolerance” policy.

‘I was terrified. I haven’t even told my mother’

Despite “zero tolerance” policies and pledges by the United Nations and NGOs to crack down on such abuses, as exposed previously in Haiti and Central African Republic, reports of such behaviour continue to surface.

Most aid agencies contacted by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation said they had received few or no claims of sexual abuse or exploitation against their workers in the DRC.

The investigation, conducted over almost a year, found women who described at least 30 instances of exploitation by men who said they were from the WHO, which sent more than 1 500 people to the government-led operation to control the outbreak.

Eight claims were against men who said they were with the DRC’s ministry of health.

Reporters also interviewed five women who said they were exploited by men who said they worked for World Vision, while three women pointed to men who said they were from Unicef, the UN Children’s Fund. Two women accused men who said they were workers with the medical charity Alima.

Despite our best efforts, cases of sexual exploitation and abuse in DRC remain grossly under-reported

Single claims were made against men who said they worked with Oxfam, the International Organisation for Migration and Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

The investigation has prompted an internal inquiry at World Vision, which said the reports were “shocking” because all staff were trained on preventing sexual abuse and it was working hard to address “entrenched cultural and power inequalities”.

Alima also said it would undertake an inquiry after being contacted with the outcome of the investigation.

Unicef received three reports of abuse involving two partner organisations responding to Ebola, said spokesman Jean-Jacques Simon. He declined to name the charities but said the cases appeared to be different from those discovered by reporters.

“Despite our best efforts, cases of sexual exploitation and abuse in DRC remain grossly under-reported,” said Simon, adding that the agency had introduced 22 ways to file complaints in the DRC, including a confidential hotline and complaint boxes.

Spokespeople for  the International Organisation for Migration, MSF, Unicef and the DRC’s health ministry said in mid-September they had no knowledge of the accusations, and several said they would need more information to take action.

Congolese are seen lining up to wash their hands and get their temperatures taken at a Ebola screening station on the road between Butembo and Goma on July 16, 2019. (Photo by John Wessels/AFP)

Oxfam said it did “everything in our power to prevent misconduct and investigate and act on allegations when they arise including supporting survivors”.

Although the women did not know all of the men’s nationalities, they said some came from Belgium, Burkina Faso, Canada, France, Guinea and the Ivory Coast.

“Why would you even ask if I reported it?” asked one woman who said she was offered money for sex by a man who said he worked for the WHO and another who said he worked for Unicef.

“I was terrified. I felt disgusting. I haven’t even told my mother about this.”

‘Passport to employment’

Many women said they were approached outside Beni’s main supermarkets, in job recruitment centres or outside hospitals where lists of successful candidates were posted.

Some said men approached them after they found out they had been passed over for jobs.

One woman said the practice of men demanding sex had become so common it was the only way of finding a job in the response to the Ebola crisis. Another called it a “passport to employment”.

Health workers are seen inside the red zone at a newly built MSF (Doctors Without Borders) supported Bbola Treatment Centre (ETC) on November 7, 2018 in Bunia, Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Photo by John Wessels/AFP)

“You’d look to see if your name was on the lists they posted outside,” said a 32-year-old woman, who said she was made pregnant by a man who identified himself as a WHO doctor. “And every day we’d be disappointed. There is no work here.”

Women said men routinely refused to wear condoms — at a time when physical contact was being discouraged to halt the spread of the deadly Ebola virus. Many knew the men’s names.

One 25-year-old cleaner said she was already working for the WHO when a doctor invited her to his house in 2018 to discuss a promotion. On arrival, he took her into his bedroom.

“He shut the door and told me, ‘There’s a condition. We need to have sex right now’,” she said.

“He started to take my clothes off me. I stepped back but he forced himself against me and kept pulling off my clothes. I started crying and told him to stop … he didn’t stop so I opened the door and ran outside.”

At the end of the month her contract was not renewed.

Though reports of jobs-for-sex schemes — and other forms of corruption — are not uncommon in humanitarian aid in the DRC, almost all the women said they had never encountered similar experiences when trying to find work elsewhere.

In discussions with hundreds of residents in multiple towns, sexual exploitation was a “consistent finding”, said Nidhi Kapur, a consultant commissioned by the aid group Care International to research gender issues during the Ebola crisis.

“Whether we talked to adolescent girls or adult women or women in the community or in the government, everybody said the same thing,” she said.

But when The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation surveyed 34 of the main international organisations and a handful of local NGOs involved in the Ebola operation, most of the 24 that provided data indicated that they had received no complaints during the two-year outbreak.

The DRC’s health minister, Eteni Longondo, said he had received no reports of exploitation by aid workers.

“I ask any woman who is asked for this kind of sexual abuse and exploitation services to denounce it, because it is not allowed in Congo,” Longondo said. “If it is a health worker who is involved in this case, I personally will take care of it.”

Some women said they were considering whether to file formal complaints with aid agencies, NGOs or the health ministry; most said they simply wanted to tell their stories so other women were not subjected to the same behaviour.  

‘They hired you with their eyeballs’

The DRC’s 10th and deadliest Ebola outbreak, in a nation decimated by decades of conflict, proved a major test for the UN, coming just two years after West Africa’s epidemic in which more than 11 000 people died.

More than 15 000 people were involved in the 2018 to 2020 operation that cost more than $700-million and was marred by hundreds of attacks by armed groups on treatment centres, medical staff and patients, as well as militia violence.

It wasn’t just me; I’d say that the majority of us chauffeurs drove men or their victims to and from hotels for sexual arrangements like this. It was so regular it was like buying food at the supermarket

Many of the women said Congolese workers involved in the crisis were more likely to demand financial kickbacks in exchange for work rather than sex.

The women reporting abuse said most sexual encounters took place at hotels that doubled as hubs for UN and NGO offices. Among the favourite spots were Okapi Palace and Hotel Beni, where aid groups had offices and often booked blocks of rooms.

One 32-year-old Ebola survivor said she was phoned by a man who invited her to come for a counselling session at a hotel. Ebola patients’ telephone numbers were routinely taken for follow-up care after they were discharged.

In the lobby, she accepted a soft drink. Hours later, she said she woke up naked and alone in a hotel room. She believes she was raped.

“I lost my husband to Ebola,” she said, adding that she stayed silent about the incident because she already felt shunned by people afraid of catching Ebola from her. “Instead of help, all I got was more trauma.”

A handful of aid agency drivers corroborated organisational affiliations of the men.

The men – doctors, health workers and administrators – used official drivers to shuttle women to the hotels and to their homes and offices, according to four drivers interviewed. All the drivers requested anonymity so as not to jeopardise job opportunities.

One woman said the man who abused her drove in a vehicle marked “World Health Organisation”.

“It was so common,” said one driver. “It wasn’t just me; I’d say that the majority of us chauffeurs drove men or their victims to and from hotels for sexual arrangements like this. It was so regular it was like buying food at the supermarket.”

Young men were also exploited, aid agency drivers said.   

One driver said a doctor would routinely ask for young men to be brought to restaurants and hotels. Other boys and young men were paid to procure women, according to a recruiter for an international NGO who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A military truck of the United Nations Organisation and Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) patrols on the road linking Beni to Mangina on August 23, 2018 in Beni, in the North Kivu province. (Photo by John Wessels/AFP)

One woman said: “In this response, they hired you with their eyeballs. They’d look you up and down before they’d make an offer.”

Some of the women showed reporters their name badges with organisation logos or pictures of them in uniforms after they were hired. One said a money transfer came from the WHO as payment for a job she said she was given in exchange for sex.

‘Instead of helping us, they destroyed our lives’

Most women interviewed were unaware of hotlines and other ways to report abuse. A programme to protect against sexual abuse was put in place a year after the operation began, said David Gressly, the UN’s former Ebola response coordinator.

Critics said this highlighted the failure of programmes to protect against sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian operations, which were underfunded, an afterthought and male-dominated with few women in decision-making roles.

“It was very clear that women and children were deprioritised,” said Kapur. 

Even when allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation are reported, they are often found by investigators to be “unsubstantiated”.

He started to take my clothes off me. I stepped back but he forced himself against me and kept pulling off my clothes. I started crying and told him to stop … he didn’t stop so I opened the door and ran outside

In the Central African Republic, for example, investigators were found to lack experience or tried to discredit victims who made accusations against UN peacekeepers.

One former humanitarian worker, who now advises international organisations and governments that fund humanitarian efforts, said the only way things will change is when donors — and taxpayers — demand change.

“Donor governments should take a much stronger stance and must ensure that taxpayer funds are not misused for the purposes of violating the rights of vulnerable aid recipients,” said Miranda Brown, formerly with the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Though relief efforts in Ebola-affected areas have been scaled down amid budget constraints and more pressing concerns — from Covid-19 to a new Ebola outbreak in northwestern DRC — the experiences haunt many of the women.

“If they really wanted to help people, they would have done it unconditionally,” said a 24-year-old woman. “Instead of helping us, they destroyed our lives.”  

This investigation was produced by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian. Additional reporting by Sam Mednick in Beni and Butembo, Guylain Balume in Goma, and Philip Kleinfeld, Paisley Dodds and Izzy Ellis in London. Additional support was provided by a Congolese journalist and a Congolese researcher whose names are being withheld for security reasons. Editing by Katy Migiro, Andrew Gully, Belinda Goldsmith and Josephine Schmidt.

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