KAMPALA, Uganda — A woman who says she fell victim to a World Health Organization doctor during a recent Ebola outbreak in Congo said she was shocked that senior officials were not punished for the claims of sexual abuse and exploitation involving dozens of women in the conflict-ridden country.
On Monday, the AP reported on a confidential UN report excusing senior staffers for their mishandling of another case because of a “loophole” in how the WHO defines victims of such behavior.
Anifa, a young Congolese woman who worked at an Ebola treatment center in Beni during the outbreak, said she could not understand the WHO’s apparent excuse for misconduct.
“It’s a shame for the WHO to employ the kind of men who don’t respect women,” she said, refusing to share her full name, fearing it would hurt her future job prospects. Anifa said she was offered a job by a WHO doctor in exchange for sex during the Ebola epidemic, but refused. The AP does not identify victims of sexual abuse.
“Maybe WHO doesn’t consider us because we are Africans?” she asked. “As long as I live, I will hate the entire World Health Organization until (the perpetrators) are charged and punished.”
Paula Donovan, co-leader of the Code Blue campaign, which wants to hold the UN accountable for sex crimes, said WHO member states looked the other way at the agency’s sexual misconduct allegations because they couldn’t afford the institution to weaken during the coronavirus pandemic. .
“Countries couldn’t go after the WHO because it was doing what the US and other rich countries wouldn’t do during COVID, which is try to figure out how to get vaccines to the poor.”
She said donor countries had likely made a disturbing calculation about the costs of responding to global health crises.
“It’s very depressing, but officials have essentially concluded that this is the price to pay, that some women will be sexually exploited.”
The UN report focused on a case first reported by the AP in May 2021 involving Dr Jean-Paul Ngandu, who worked on the Ebola response in northeastern Congo in 2019. Shortly after his arrival, Ngandu met a young woman at a local restaurant. The two had sex later that night, but the relationship soured and the woman and her aunt complained to WHO that Ngandu got her pregnant.
The AP obtained a copy of a notarized agreement between Ngandu and the woman, signed by two WHO officials, agreeing to cover her health care costs and purchase her land.
After concerns about the Ngandu case were raised at WHO headquarters in Geneva, “it was decided not to investigate the complaint because it did not violate WHO policy (sexual exploitation and abuse”), the UN said. report. According to the report, this was because the woman was not a “beneficiary” of the WHO, meaning she was not receiving humanitarian aid and thus did not qualify as a victim under WHO policies.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has repeatedly said he is “outraged” by reports of sexual misconduct. But to date, no senior staff have been fired in connection with allegations of sexual abuse during Congo’s 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak – where more than 80 workers under the direction of the WHO and other agencies were found to be women. abused or exploited.
A panel appointed by Tedros to investigate allegations of sexual abuse in Congo found numerous allegations of sexual assault by WHO staffers, including women forced to have abortions by their attackers and a 13-year-old girl who said a WHO driver took her to a hotel where she was raped.
Tudi Diane Tumba, a coordinator at a Congolese women’s rights organization, said they are still reviewing complaints from young women and girls who allege they were sexually assaulted or exploited by WHO officials during the Ebola epidemic.
“It is very shameful if the WHO will not punish Dr. Ngandu,” Tumba said. “I encourage women to denounce and shout louder so that this sexual abuse ends.” Ngandu was not fired; his contract was not renewed, but he was not reprimanded by the WHO.
Some global health experts were unconvinced by Tedros’ outspoken outrage.
“It undermines the complete integrity of WHO that no one has lost their job because of this,” said Sophie Harman, a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University of London. “If the WHO takes gender equality seriously, then it’s time for Tedros to leave.”
The WHO’s communications director insisted that the agency is committed to tackling sexual misconduct.
“WHO is focused on continuing the deep and broad strengthening of our policies, practices, personnel, training and resources to prevent sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment,” said Gabriella Stern.
After Congo’s allegations became public, the WHO created a new department to tackle sexual exploitation, headed by Dr. Gaya Gamhewage.
In her interview with UN investigators, Gamhewage said that before she was appointed she was not aware of the WHO’s sexual misconduct policy and had not even read it.
Cheng reported from London. Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.