In the beginning of this year, the leader of the World Health Organization’s anti-sexual abuse team visited Congo to confront the largest known instance of sexual misconduct in the U.N. health organization’s history. This involved over 100 local women being abused by employees and others during a serious Ebola outbreak.
A recent report from Dr. Gaya Gamhewage’s visit in March, commissioned by WHO, revealed that a woman she encountered had given birth to a child with a physical deformity that required expensive medical care. This added financial burden falls upon the young mother in a country ranked among the most impoverished in the world.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has provided financial assistance of $250 to 104 women in Congo who reported being sexually abused or exploited by officials involved in the fight against Ebola. This amount is equivalent to less than one day’s expenses for certain United Nations officials working in the Congolese capital. Internal documents obtained by The Associated Press show that this amount is $19 more than what Gamhewage received per day during her three-day visit.
The sum of money is enough to cover basic costs of living for less than four months in a country where, according to WHO reports, a significant number of individuals subsist on less than $2.15 per day.
Women did not receive payments without conditions. In order to receive the money, they had to attend training courses aimed at assisting them in starting “income-generating activities.” These payments seem to be an attempt to bypass the U.N.’s policy of not providing reparations by incorporating the money into a comprehensive support package.
Numerous women from Congo who experienced sexual abuse have yet to receive any assistance. According to a private report released by the WHO last month, approximately one-third of the identified victims cannot be found. The WHO also stated that nearly twelve women rejected their offer of help.
WHO has allocated $26,000 to aid victims of sexual misconduct in Congo, which accounts for approximately 1% of their $2 million “survivor assistance fund”.
During interviews, individuals informed the AP that the financial compensation they received was inadequate, but they were more focused on seeking justice.
Paula Donovan, one of the co-directors of the Code Blue campaign, which aims to eliminate impunity for sexual misconduct in the United Nations, referred to the payments made by the WHO to victims of sexual abuse and exploitation as “perverse.”
She stated that while it is not uncommon for the U.N. to provide funding for individuals to improve their quality of life, combining it with compensation for a sexual assault or a crime leading to the birth of a child is unimaginable.
Donovan stated that making women participate in training before receiving monetary assistance created uncomfortable requirements for those seeking aid after experiencing mistreatment.
According to WHO documents, the two women who spoke with Gamhewage expressed their primary desire for the “perpetrators to be held accountable, preventing them from causing harm to others.” The names of the women were not disclosed.
In an interview with the AP, Gamhewage stated that there is no action we can take to compensate for the harm caused by sexual abuse and exploitation.
The World Health Organization (WHO) informed the Associated Press (AP) that their criteria for determining the “victim survivor package” included the cost of food in Congo and following global guidelines to ensure that recipients are not given excessive amounts of cash that could potentially cause more harm. Gamhewage clarified that the WHO is adhering to recommendations from experts at local charities and other United Nations (U.N.) agencies.
“It is clear that we have not done enough,” stated Gamhewage. She went on to say that the WHO would directly inquire with survivors about what additional assistance they may need.
According to her, the WHO has provided financial assistance for 17 children who were born due to sexual exploitation and abuse, covering their medical expenses.
One woman, who claimed to have been sexually exploited and impregnated by a doctor from the WHO, reached a settlement agreement with the agency. This included receiving a piece of land and access to health care. The doctor also agreed to pay $100 per month until the baby was born, in order to safeguard the integrity and reputation of the WHO.
However, other women who have come forward to the AP and claimed to have been sexually exploited by WHO staff believe that the agency has not taken sufficient action.
At 34 years old, Alphonsine stated that she was coerced into engaging in sexual activity with a World Health Organization (WHO) official in order to secure a position as an infection control worker on the Ebola response team in Beni, a city in eastern Congo that was a major location for the 2018-2020 outbreak. Similar to other women, she chose not to reveal her last name due to concerns of retaliation.
Alphonsine verified receiving $250 from the WHO, but was informed by the agency that she must complete a baking course in order to receive it.
Alphonsine stated that the financial assistance was helpful initially, however, it ultimately fell short. She went on to mention that she eventually faced bankruptcy and would have preferred to receive a piece of land and sufficient funds to launch her own business.
As a WHO employee on assignment in Congo, the standard daily allowance typically falls between $144 and $480. According to an internal travel claim, Gamhewage was given a daily rate of $231 during her three-day visit to the capital city of Kinshasa in Congo.
According to internal records, the World Health Organization has allocated $1.5 million for the prevention of sexual misconduct in Congo for 2022-2023. More than half of this amount, $821,856, is attributed to staff costs. 12% is dedicated to prevention activities and 35%, or $535,000, is designated for “victim support.” This support includes legal aid, transportation, and psychological assistance, as stated by Gamhewage. It is important to note that this budget is separate from the $2 million survivors assistance fund, which aids victims worldwide.
The Congo office of the WHO has a budget of approximately $174 million, with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation being its primary donor.
The United Nations’ health organization is facing challenges in holding those responsible for sexual abuse and exploitation in Congo accountable. A panel commissioned by the World Health Organization discovered 83 perpetrators involved in the Ebola response, including 21 WHO employees. The youngest victim identified was 13 years old.
In May 2021, a report by the Associated Press uncovered that leaders within the World Health Organization were informed of instances of sexual exploitation occurring during their efforts to control the Ebola crisis. Despite this knowledge, no action was taken against senior managers, even those who were aware of the abuse taking place.
The WHO has finally succumbed to the pressure from Congolese officials and disclosed that they have provided them with information on 16 individuals accused of committing sexual abuse and exploitation while associated with the WHO during the Ebola crisis.
Another woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo expressed that the World Health Organization (WHO) has not taken sufficient action to hold its staff accountable. She shared that she was forced into a sexual encounter with a WHO employee in order to secure a job during the outbreak. She also received $250 from the organization after completing a baking course.
Denise, age 31, stated that they were promised evidence that the issue had been resolved, but there has been no further communication.
According to the WHO, five employees have been fired for engaging in sexual misconduct since 2021.
However, in Congo, there still exists a strong sense of suspicion.
Audia, who is 24 years old, shared with the AP that she became pregnant as a result of being coerced into having sex by a WHO official in order to secure a job during the outbreak. She now has a five-year-old daughter and received a meager sum of $250 from WHO after completing courses in tailoring and baking.
She is concerned about the potential outcomes of a future health crisis in eastern Congo, which has been affected by conflict. Due to inadequate infrastructure and resources, emergency responses heavily rely on external assistance from organizations like the WHO.
“I can no longer rely on (WHO),” she expressed. “To be abandoned in times of hardship without any action is simply irresponsible.”
This report was contributed to by AP journalists Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, and Jamey Keaten in Geneva.