When the World Health Organization went to the Congo between 2018 and 2020, nearly two-dozen workers for the UN agency preyed on more than 100 Congolese women – with dozens of staffers raping, sexually abusing, and otherwise harassing local women.
One of the victims, identified in a UN report as “Jolianne,” was believed to be 13-years-old. Other women say their attackers used no birth control, from which several pregnancies ensued. Some of the women were forced by their rapists to get abortions.
In the case of “Jolianne,” a WHO driver stopped on a roadsidfe in the town of Mangina where she was selling phone cards in April of 2019 and offered to give her a ride home.
“Instead, he took her to a hotel where she says she was raped by this person,” according to a 2021 UN report.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus traveled to Congo 14 times during the outbreak, repeatedly taking credit for the response to the outbreak, while publicly commending one of the alleged rapists for his heroic work.
“It is unconscionable that this should ever have happened, and the sheer scale of the sexual assaults is shocking,” said Lawrence Gostin, chair of global health law at Georgetown University.
All of this was known two years ago following an AP investigation which revealed that senior WHO management was informed of sexual exploitation during the agency’s efforts to curb Ebola, but did little to stop it. What wasn’t revealed was how the WHO put a bow on the whole thing.
According to a new report from AP, internal documents reveal that the agency paid 104 victims some $250 each, an amount which is less than a single day’s expenses for some UN officials working in the Congolese capital – but which can support more than four months of survival in a country where many live on less than $2.15 per day.
What’s more, the women had to complete a training course to help them start “income-generating activities” before they received the cash due to a UN policy that it doesn’t pay reparations.
Many Congolese women who were sexually abused have still received nothing. WHO said in a confidential document last month that about a third of the known victims were “impossible to locate.” The WHO said nearly a dozen women declined its offer.
The total of $26,000 that WHO has provided to the victims equals about 1% of the $2 million, WHO-created “survivor assistance fund” for victims of sexual misconduct, primarily in Congo. -AP
The recipients told AP that the money, while not enough, wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of justice.
“It’s not unheard of for the U.N. to give people seed money so they can boost their livelihoods, but to mesh that with compensation for a sexual assault, or a crime that results in the birth of a baby, is unthinkable,” said Paula Donovan, who co-directs the Code Blue campaign to eliminate what it calls impunity for sexual misconduct in the U.N., and described the payoffs as “perverse,” and decried the training requirement before receiving the cash.
Two women who met with Dr. Gaya Gamhewage, the doctor who leads the WHO’s efforts to prevent sexual abuse, told her that what they wanted most was for the “perpetrators to be brought to account so they could not harm anyone else,” according to the WHO documents.
“There is nothing we can do to make up for (sexual abuse and exploitation),” Gamhewage told AP.
The documents show that staff costs account for more than half of the $1.5 million the WHO set aside towards the prevention of sexual misconduct in Congo for 2022-2023, or $821,856. Another 12% was allocated for prevention activities, and 35%, or $535,000, was for “victim support,” which includes legal assistance, transportation and psychological support.
According to the WHO, the criteria to determine its “victim survivor package” included the cost of food in Congo, and “global guidance on not dispensing more cash than what would be reasonable for the community, in order to not expose recipients to further harm.”
“Obviously, we haven’t done enough,” said Gamhewage, adding that the WHO would ask survivors directly what additional support they needed.
At least one woman who said she was sexually exploited and impregnated by a WHO doctor negotiated compensation that agency officials signed off on, including a plot of land and health care. The doctor also agreed to pay $100 a month until the baby was born in a deal “to protect the integrity and reputation of WHO.”
But in interviews with the AP, other women who say they were sexually exploited by WHO staff asserted the agency hasn’t done enough.
Alphonsine, 34, said she was pressured into having sex with a WHO official in exchange for a job as an infection control worker with the Ebola response team in the eastern Congo city of Beni, an epicenter of the 2018-2020 outbreak. Like other women, she did not share her last name for fear of reprisals.
Alphonsine confirmed that she had received $250 from the WHO, but the agency told her she had to take a baking course to obtain it.
“The money helped at the time, but it wasn’t enough,” Alphonsine said. She said she later went bankrupt and would have preferred to receive a plot of land and enough money to start her own business. -AP
WHO staffers, meanwhile, had a standard daily allowance ranging between $144 and $480. Gamhewage received $231 per day during a three-day trip to the Congolese capital, according to an internal travel claim.
One victim, 24-year-old Audia, told AP that she was impregnated by a WHO official who forced her to have sex in exchange for a job during the outbreak. She now has a five-year-old daughter, and says the $250 WHO payoff is “really insufficient” after taking courses in tailoring and baking.
“I can’t put my trust in (WHO) anymore,” she said. “When they abandon you in such difficulties and leave you without doing anything, it’s irresponsible.”