GENEVA — The World Health Organization, already struggling to lead a global response to the coronavirus pandemic, has been hit with potentially damaging allegations that doctors and other employees working on the agency’s response to an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo peddled jobs for sex.
The New Humanitarian, a nonprofit news organization based in Geneva, and the Thomson Reuters Foundation published on Tuesday the findings of a yearlong investigation in which 30 of 51 women interviewed reported exploitation by men identified as working for the W.H.O. on the Ebola outbreak starting in 2018.
The W.H.O., a United Nations agency which says it has a policy of zero-tolerance toward sexual abuse, said its leadership and staff were outraged by the reports and promised a “robust” investigation.
“The betrayal of people in the communities we serve is reprehensible,” the W.H.O. said in a statement on Tuesday about the report. “We do not tolerate such behavior in any of our staff, contractors or partners,” it added. “Anyone identified as being involved will be held to account and face serious consequences, including immediate dismissal.”
The allegations also brought fresh scrutiny to the United Nations’ struggles with the decades-old problem of sexual exploitation by peacekeeping troops, which surfaced in conflicts in Bosnia in the 1990s and in more recent emergencies in places such as the Central African Republic and Haiti.
The 51 women interviewed all told investigating journalists that they had been pressured to provide sex to employees of the W.H.O. and of other international aid organizations as well as of Congo’s Health Ministry. They faced the pressure when they were seeking jobs and, on occasion, the men terminated the contracts of those who refused, the women said.
Eight women said they were exploited by employees of the Health Ministry. Others reported encounters with men from charity groups including World Vision, UNICEF and the medical organization ALIMA.
The report said World Vision had opened an internal investigation and had described the allegations as “shocking,” while ALIMA said it would investigate the charges.
Jean-Jacques Simon, a UNICEF spokesman in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, said in the report that his organization had received information relating to employees of two partner organizations that appeared to be different to the cases reported by The New Humanitarian and Thomson Reuters. UNICEF did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the allegations against its own staff.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the W.H.O., said that its inquiry, in addition to investigating these specific allegations, would also address broader issues of protection of civilians in emergencies.
The allegations investigated in Congo focused on the northeastern town of Beni, a focal point in a two-year battle against an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus to which the W.H.O. sent some 1,500 staff members and consultants. International organizations deployed thousands more.
Congo’s health minister, Eteni Longondo, told the investigation that he had received no reports of exploitation by aid workers, but reporters found the accounts were so numerous and similar that the practice appeared widespread.
Women said they were propositioned in offices, hospitals and outside recruitment centers where lists of job vacancies were displayed. The practice was so common, one woman told journalists, that sex became “a passport to employment.”
Some of the women worked as cooks, cleaners or community outreach workers earning much higher pay than the local average. One woman, an Ebola survivor whose husband had died of the disease, said she was drugged and abused after being invited for a psychological counseling session. Two women said they became pregnant by their abusers.
The interviewees did not know the nationalities of all their abusers, but they identified men from Western countries including Belgium, Canada and France, and from African nations such as Burkina Faso, Guinea and Ivory Coast.
The women spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity and said they had not previously reported the abuse out of fear of facing reprisals or of losing their jobs, or from shame.
The women’s accounts were broadly corroborated by drivers for aid agencies who told the investigation that they had delivered women to hotels, homes and offices of aid personnel. One driver told reporters “it was so regular, it was like buying food at the supermarket.”