According to internal records, the World Health Organization compensated sexual abuse victims in Congo with $250 each.
In the beginning of this year, the leader of the World Health Organization’s efforts to prevent sexual abuse went to Congo to deal with the largest recorded sexual scandal in the history of the U.N. health agency. This involved more than 100 women being abused by employees and others during a severe Ebola outbreak.
Based on a report by Dr. Gaya Gamhewage during her trip in March, a woman who had experienced abuse gave birth to a baby with a physical defect. This required additional medical expenses for the young mother, who lives in one of the most impoverished countries in the world.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has provided financial assistance of $250 to 104 women in the Democratic Republic of Congo who have reported being sexually abused or taken advantage of by individuals involved in the Ebola response effort. This amount is significantly lower than the daily expenses of some United Nations officials working in the Congolese capital and $19 more than what Gamhewage, a WHO official, received per day during her three-day visit, as shown in internal documents obtained by The Associated Press.
According to documents from the World Health Organization, this amount would cover basic living expenses for less than four months in a country where many people live on less than $2.15 per day.
The disbursements to women were not given without conditions. In order to receive the money, they had to successfully complete training programs designed to assist them in initiating “income-producing endeavors.”
The payments seem to be attempting to bypass the U.N.’s stated policy of not providing reparations by incorporating the funds into what they refer to as a “complete package” of assistance.
Many Congolese women who were sexually abused have still received nothing. WHO said in a confidential document last month that about a third of the known victims were “impossible to locate.” The WHO said nearly a dozen women declined its offer.
The amount of $26,000 given by WHO to the affected individuals is equivalent to 1% of the $2 million “survivor assistance fund” created by WHO for those impacted by sexual misconduct, mainly in Congo.
During interviews, individuals informed the Associated Press that the financial compensation they received was insufficient, but they were seeking justice above all else.
Paula Donovan, one of the leaders of the Code Blue initiative aiming to eradicate impunity for sexual misconduct within the U.N., referred to the payments made by the WHO to victims of sexual abuse and exploitation as “perverse.”
She stated that it is not uncommon for the United Nations to provide individuals with initial funds to improve their way of life. However, combining this with compensation for a sexual assault or a crime that leads to the birth of a child is unimaginable.
Donovan stated that requiring women to attend training before receiving cash creates uncomfortable conditions for those seeking assistance for misconduct.
According to WHO documents, two unidentified women who spoke with Gamhewage expressed their desire for the perpetrators to be held accountable and prevented from causing harm to others.
In an interview with the AP, Gamhewage stated that there is no way to compensate for (sexual abuse and exploitation).
The AP was informed by the WHO that factors considered in determining the “victim survivor package” included the price of food in Congo and adhering to international guidelines on limiting the amount of cash given to communities, in order to avoid causing them more harm. Gamhewage stated that the WHO was following advice from experts at local charities and other U.N. organizations.
Gamhewage stated that it was clear that more needed to be done. She mentioned that the WHO would seek input directly from survivors to determine what additional assistance they desired.
According to her, The WHO has provided financial assistance for the medical expenses of 17 children who were born due to sexual exploitation and abuse.
One woman who claimed she was sexually abused and made pregnant by a doctor working for WHO reached an agreement for compensation which was approved by officials of the agency. This included receiving a piece of land and healthcare. The doctor also committed to paying $100 per month until the baby was born, in order to preserve the integrity and reputation of WHO.
However, in conversations with the Associated Press, additional women who claim to have experienced sexual exploitation by WHO employees expressed dissatisfaction with the agency’s actions.
A 34-year-old named Alphonsine revealed that she was coerced into having sexual relations with a WHO representative in order to secure a position as an infection control worker on the Ebola response team in Beni, a major location of the 2018-2020 outbreak in eastern Congo. Similar to other women, she chose not to disclose her full name out of concern for potential consequences.
Alphonsine verified that she was given $250 by the WHO, but was informed by the organization that she needed to complete a baking course in order to receive it.
Alphonsine mentioned that the funds were useful initially, but proved to be insufficient. She also shared that she faced bankruptcy afterwards and would have preferred to receive a parcel of land and sufficient funds to establish her own business.
As a WHO employee on assignment in Congo, the standard daily stipend varies from approximately $144 to $480. According to an internal travel request, Gamhewage was allotted $231 per day for her three-day visit to Kinshasa, the capital of Congo.
The records reveal that personnel expenses account for over half of the $1.5 million budget allocated by the WHO for preventing sexual misconduct in Congo for 2022-2023, specifically $821,856. An additional 12% is designated for prevention efforts and 35%, or $535,000, is allocated for “victim support,” which includes legal aid, transportation, and mental health assistance according to Gamhewage. This budget is distinct from the $2 million fund for assisting survivors worldwide.
The Congo office of the WHO has a budget of approximately $174 million, with its largest donor being the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The United Nations health organization is still facing challenges in holding individuals accountable for sexual abuse and exploitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A panel commissioned by the WHO discovered 83 perpetrators involved in the Ebola response, including 21 employees of the organization. The youngest victim identified was 13 years old.
In May 2021, an investigation conducted by the Associated Press found that top-level leaders within the World Health Organization were made aware of instances of sexual exploitation that occurred while the organization was working to contain the Ebola virus. Despite this knowledge, there was no significant action taken to address the abuse. None of the senior managers involved, even those who were aware of the exploitation at the time, were terminated from their positions.
Following persistent requests from Congolese officials, internal documents from the WHO reveal that the organization has provided them with information regarding 16 individuals accused of committing acts of sexual abuse and exploitation while working for the WHO during the Ebola crisis.
According to another woman from Congo, the WHO has not taken sufficient action to punish its employees. She claims that she was forced to have sexual relations with a staff member in order to secure a job during the outbreak. Similarly, she also received $250 from the WHO after completing a baking course.
Denise, 31, stated that they were assured evidence would be provided to confirm that the matter had been addressed, but no further action has been taken.
According to reports, the World Health Organization (WHO) has terminated the employment of five employees due to allegations of sexual misconduct that occurred in 2021.
However, in Congo, there is still a strong sense of distrust.
Audia, a 24-year-old woman, shared with the Associated Press that she became pregnant after being coerced into having sex with a World Health Organization employee in exchange for a job during the outbreak. As a result, she now has a 5-year-old daughter and was only given a paltry sum of $250 from WHO after completing training in sewing and baking.
She is concerned about the potential consequences of a health emergency in eastern Congo, which is currently affected by conflict. Due to inadequate infrastructure and limited resources, the response to any crisis heavily depends on external aid from organizations like the WHO.
She expressed her loss of confidence in (WHO). She deemed it irresponsible when they deserted her during challenging times and took no action.