KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — A girl who says she was victimized by a World Health Organization doctor during a recent Ebola outbreak in Congo said she is shocked that no senior officials were punished for the sexual abuse and exploitation claims involving dozens of girls within the conflict-ridden country.
On Monday, the AP reported on a confidential U.N. report that excused senior staffers for his or her mishandling of one other case on account of a “loophole” in how WHO defines victims of such behavior.
Anifa, a young Congolese woman who worked at an Ebola treatment center in Beni throughout the outbreak, said she couldn’t understand WHO’s seeming excusal of misconduct.
“It’s a shame for WHO to provide work to the sorts of men who don’t respect women,” she said, declining to share her full name, for fear it could hurt her future job prospects. Anifa said she had been offered a job by a WHO doctor in exchange for sex throughout the Ebola epidemic, but refused. The AP doesn’t discover victims of sexual abuse.
“Perhaps WHO doesn’t consider us because we’re Africans?” she asked. “So long as I’m alive, I’ll hate your entire World Health Organization until (the perpetrators) are charged and punished.”
Paula Donovan, co-leader of the Code Blue campaign, which seeks to carry the U.N. accountable for sexual offenses, said WHO member countries looked the opposite way on the agency’s sexual misconduct charges because they may not afford to weaken the institution throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
“Countries couldn’t go after WHO since it was doing what the U.S. and other wealthy countries wouldn’t do during COVID, which is attempt to determine tips on how to get vaccines to the poor.”
She said donor countries had likely made a disturbing calculation in regards to the costs of responding to global health crises.
“It is rather depressing, but officials have essentially concluded that is the worth that must be paid, that some women are going to be sexually exploited.”
The U.N. report was focused on a case first reported by the AP in May 2021, involving Dr. Jean-Paul Ngandu, who worked on the Ebola response in northeastern Congo in 2019. Shortly after his arrival, Ngandu met a young woman at a neighborhood restaurant. The 2 had sex later that evening, but the connection soured, and the lady and her aunt complained to WHO that Ngandu had impregnated her.
AP obtained a duplicate of a notarized agreement between Ngandu and the lady, signed by two WHO staffers, wherein he agreed to cover her health care costs and buy her land.
After concerns in regards to the Ngandu case were raised to WHO’s Geneva headquarters, “a call was made not to analyze the grievance on the premise that it didn’t violate WHO’s (sexual exploitation and abuse) policy,” the U.N. report said. The report said this was because the lady was not a “beneficiary” of WHO, meaning she didn’t receive any humanitarian aid, and thus, didn’t qualify as a victim under WHO policy.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said repeatedly he’s “outraged” by reports of sexual misconduct. But so far, no senior staffers linked to the sexual abuse allegations in Congo’s 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak — where greater than 80 employees under the direction of WHO and other agencies were found to have abused or exploited women — have been fired.
A panel appointed by Tedros to analyze the Congo sex abuse claims found quite a few allegations of sexual assault by WHO staffers, including women forced to have abortions by their attackers and a 13-year-old girl who said a WHO driver took her to a hotel where she was raped.
Tudi Diane Tumba, a coordinator at a Congolese organization that advocates for girls’s rights, said they were still assessing complaints from young women and girls who alleged they were sexually abused or exploited by WHO officials throughout the Ebola epidemic.
“It is rather shameful if the WHO won’t sanction Dr. Ngandu,” Tumba said. “I encourage women to denounce and shout louder in order that these sexual abuses end.” Ngandu was not fired; his contract was not renewed, but he was not reprimanded by WHO.
Some global health experts were unconvinced by Tedros’ professed indignation.
“It undermines the whole integrity of WHO that nobody has lost their job over this,” said Sophie Harman, a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University in London. “If WHO is serious about gender equality, then it’s time for Tedros to go.”
WHO’s director of communications insisted the agency was committed to addressing sexual misconduct.
“WHO is concentrated on continuing the deep and broad strengthening of our policies and practices, staffing, training and resourcing to forestall sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment,” said Gabriella Stern.
After the Congo allegations became public, WHO created a recent department to handle sexual exploitation, headed by Dr. Gaya Gamhewage.
In her interview with U.N. investigators, Gamhewage said that prior to being appointed, she had no knowledge of the WHO’s sexual misconduct policies and had not even read them.
Cheng reported from London. Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.