More than 50 women have alleged that they have been sexually abused or exploited in the Democratic Republic of Congo by Ebola aid workers who said they were from some of the world’s top humanitarian organisations.
The allegations centre around the town of Beni, one of the epicentres of the country’s 10th and most deadly Ebola outbreak which started in 2018.
In an interview, 51 women recounted multiple incidents of abuse and claimed the men who exploited them identified themselves as being with the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNICEF, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, World Vision, medical charity Alima and the UN’s migration agency, IOM.
The allegations follow a joint investigation by The New Humanitarian (NH) and the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF).
The majority of women said they were plied with drinks, others ambushed in offices and hospitals, and some locked in rooms by men who promised jobs or threatened to fire them if they did not comply.
“So many women were affected by this,” said one 44-year-old woman, who explained that to get a job she had to have sex with a man who said he was a WHO worker.
She and the other women spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“I can’t think of someone who worked in the response who didn’t have to offer something,” she added.
Some women were cooks, cleaners and community outreach workers hired on short-term contracts, earning $50 to $100 (£40 to £80) a month – more than twice the normal wage.
At least two women said they became pregnant and others said the abuse occurred as recently as March.
The number and similarity of many of the accounts from women in the eastern city of Beni suggest the practice was widespread, with three organisations vowing to investigate the accusations.
UN secretary-general António Guterres called for the allegations to be “investigated fully”.
The WHO said it was investigating the allegations, affirming that it had a “zero tolerance policy with regard to sexual exploitation and abuse”.
“The actions allegedly perpetrated by individuals identifying themselves as working for WHO are unacceptable and will be robustly investigated,” it said in a statement.
“The betrayal of people in the communities we serve is reprehensible and we do not tolerate such behaviour in any of our staff, contractors or partners.
“Anyone identified as being involved will be held to account and face serious consequences, including immediate dismissal.”
Following the allegations against WHO, a Foreign Office spokesperson, said: “Sexual exploitation and abuse are completely abhorrent. We regularly assess all of our partners against the highest safeguarding standards and expect thorough investigations whenever allegations are made.
“The World Health Organisation has confirmed it is urgently investigating these allegations. We will scrutinise their findings closely.”
Sarah Champion MP, chair of the International Development committee in the Commons, told Sky News she wants to see a “root and branch change to the culture of the humanitarian aid sector”.
She said: “The inquiry that our select committee is doing, we’re hearing how mothers who have three children with no food and, for example in the Congo, the Ebola crisis bearing down on them. How are they meant to choose between reporting the abuse that they are suffering or food for their children?
“That’s the power these individuals have over people and we shouldn’t be surprised that people who prey on vulnerables go to areas where vulnerables are.
“This is something that these organisations need to get their heads around: they’re not the great and the good, there are exploiters working within your organisations specifically because you work with vulnerable people.
“So, unless we do more on the ground to give those beneficiaries a voice, and options, and be told what’s happening to them won’t affect whether they get or food or medicine that day – it’s actually helping everybody – until we give some of the power over to them and start listening, this abuse is going to continue.”
Spokespeople for IOM, MSF, UNICEF and DRC’s health ministry told the NH and TRF in mid-September they did not know about the accusations before they were presented to them and several said they would need more information to take action.
Oxfam said it does “everything in our power to prevent misconduct and to investigate and act on allegations when they arise, including supporting survivors”.
Meanwhile, an Alima spokesperson said that after investigations earlier this year, two employees were dismissed for sexual harassment and that they had launched a new investigation after the recent reporting.