Vetting aid workers more closely and giving women more power is critical to tackle sex abuse in humanitarian crises as exposed in a joint investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian, aid experts said on Wednesday.
In the expose, 51 women recounted multiple incidents of abuse by mainly foreign aid workers during the 2018-2020 Ebola crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, many saying men demanded sex to get a job or ended contracts if they refused.
The World Health Organization (WHO), the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), World Vision, and medical charity ALIMA have launched investigations on the back of the report.
Other groups named by women in the expose were Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Most of the organisations said they received no reports of sexual exploitation during the Ebola crisis despite setting up hotlines and other reporting mechanisms to tackle such abuse that has been a scourge of the aid sector for decades.
“We lurch from one scandal to another and keep hearing that ‘lessons have been learnt’. They haven’t,” Sarah Champion, International Development Committee Chair for the British Parliament, said in a statement.
“That these cases were not detected by internal reporting mechanisms at the organisations implicated highlights serious weaknesses in their systems for preventing and reporting abuse.”
The largest number of accusations - made by 30 women - involved men who identified themselves as being with the WHO.
The WHO expressed outrage at the report and initiated a review, vowing anyone identified as being involved would face “serious consequences”, including instant dismissal, and stressed the WHO had a zero tolerance policy to sexual abuse.
“The actions allegedly perpetrated by individuals identifying themselves as working for WHO are unacceptable and will be robustly investigated,” the agency said in a statement.
Jane Holl Lute, the U.N. Special Coordinator for the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, called for investigations to be “thorough and as swift as possible”.
“In the UN, we have learned that sexual exploitation and abuse is an ever-present danger, especially for already vulnerable populations,” she said on Wednesday.
“Every undertaking — whether humanitarian operations, development work, or peacekeeping - must take account of this reality with ongoing vigilance and a commitment to action.”