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Rocked by new sex claims, World Health Organization appeals for information

by Sonia Elks | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 20 May 2021 15:30 GMT

A woman shields herself from the sun with an umbrella in Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo, October 8, 2019. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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Investigations by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian found many Congolese women who said they were coerced into sex by men who said they worked for aid groups

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, May 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Facing scrutiny over new claims of sexual abuse by its workers, the World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday urged anyone with information to come forward so that action can be taken.

Investigations by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian found that more than 70 Congolese women said they were coerced into trading sex for jobs by men who said they worked for aid groups during a 2018 to 2020 Ebola outbreak.

More than 40 of the women in the Democratic Republic of Congo accused men who said they worked for the WHO of abuse, including one claim of rape, ramping up pressure on the United Nations and others to crack down on exploitation in aid.

"We are very shocked and appalled by the allegations, none more than the Director General himself," WHO spokeswoman Marcia Poole told reporters in response to a question about the recent accusations.

The latest investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian, published last week, involved 22 women in the eastern Congolese city of Butembo, two of whom said they had illegal abortions to end unwanted pregnancies.

Another woman said her sister died in 2019 after paying $300 on the black market for a concoction to end her pregnancy after having sex with a man who said he worked for the WHO and gave her a job as a cleaner.

Most women were hired to work 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 on awareness campaigns.

A total of seven organisations were named, including three U.N. agencies.

"We encourage anyone who has any information to come forward and contact the commission so this work can continue," Poole said. "The crucial thing as well is to look at the systemic changes that we need to make so that it doesn't happen again."

The aid sector has faced mounting calls to tackle exploitation since it emerged that Oxfam staff used sex workers in Haiti during a 2010 mission - a scandal that snowballed into widespread reports of harassment and abuse in the sector.

Several aid workers have already been dismissed in the wake of September's initial exposé by The New Humanitarian and Thomson Reuters Foundation, which involved 51 women, and several organisations named in the story have launched investigations.

The WHO set up an independent commission in October to look into the abuse claims and it will "make recommendations in terms of supporting the survivors, in terms of taking action against those who may be found guilty", Poole said on Wednesday.

"We're making sure staff is very aware of the consequences," she said, adding that the WHO had also set up a working group to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse, which is scrutinising the agency's policies for emergency operations.

Related stories:

New sex abuse claims against aid workers exposed in Congo 

Aid sector blasted as 'last safe haven' for sex abusers  

How aid workers got away with sex abuse in Congo's Ebola outbreak   

Over 50 women accuse Ebola aid workers of sex abuse in Congo 

This story was updated on May 20, 2021 to correct a comment from WHO after they revised their statement in par 9 and clarify details of the working group against sexual abuse in par 13.

(Reporting by Sonia Elks; Additional reporting by Matthias Blamont. Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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