The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday it was setting up a seven-person independent commission to investigate claims of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers during the recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
In an investigation published last month by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian, more than 50 women accused aid workers from the WHO and leading charities of demanding sex in exchange for jobs during the 2018-2020 crisis.
Five out of seven of the organisations named in the expose have pledged to investigate, as has DRC’s health ministry.
Leading the WHO inquiry will be Aichatou Mindaoudou, Niger’s former minister of foreign affairs and social development, and Julienne Lusenge, a Congolese human rights activist, the UN agency said in a statement.
Lusenge is known for her work advocating for victims of sexual violence in eastern DRC and co-founded a Congolese women’s rights group that supports survivors.
Mindaoudou has been a UN special representative to Ivory Coast and Darfur since working for the government of Niger. The two co-chairs will choose up to five other people with expertise in sexual exploitation and abuse, emergency response and investigations to join the commission, the WHO said.
“The role of the independent commission will be to swiftly establish the facts, identify and support survivors, ensure that any ongoing abuse has stopped, and hold perpetrators to account,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a briefing to member states.
The WHO will also hire an independent and external organisation with experience in conducting similar inquiries to support the commission’s work, he added.
The majority of the allegations in DRC were against men who said they worked for the WHO. The agency has said it was “outraged” to learn of the reports and reiterated its zero-tolerance policy against sexual exploitation and abuse.
Most of the women – many of whose accounts were backed up by aid agency drivers and local NGO workers – said numerous men had either propositioned them, forced them to have sex in exchange for a job, or ended contracts when they refused.
From Bosnia to Haiti, reports of sexual abuse and exploitation scandals have shaken the aid sector for decades – denting the trust of local populations, donors and taxpayers.
In DRC, few women believed they could get justice. Many said they could not afford to lose their jobs while others feared being stigmatised by family or community.
The WHO was in charge of efforts to control an Ebola outbreak in eastern DRC between August 2018 and the end of June this year. During that time, 3,481 people were infected with the haemorrhagic fever and 2,299 people died.
It was the 10th Ebola outbreak the country had seen. This one was particularly difficult to bring under control because of fighting between various rebel groups and the government there.
Since the end of the Ebola mission, there has been a new outbreak in western DRC.