Get Informed, Stay Inspired

The issue of sexual misconduct and exploitation by staff continues to be problematic.
Africa Science & Health

The issue of sexual misconduct and exploitation by staff continues to be problematic.

On Monday, the World Health Organization announced that strides were being taken to address and prevent instances of sexual misconduct. However, they also acknowledged that misconduct by WHO employees continues to be an issue.

“In the last two years, WHO has increased our efforts to prevent and address all types of sexual misconduct, exploitation, and harassment,” stated Gaya Gamhewage, the director of WHO’s prevention and response to sexual misconduct.

“Despite the continuous increase in numbers, there is a possibility that not all cases have been reported yet. Therefore, the numbers will likely continue to rise for a while. However, this should not be interpreted as our efforts being ineffective. In reality, our actions are bringing attention to this issue.”

The data appears to support this claim. In the last year, the International Oversight Services (IOS) of the United Nations has looked into 287 accusations of sexual misconduct across all regions in the World Health Organization (WHO).

According to Gamhewage, the World Health Organization (WHO) is taking measures to prevent and address instances of sexual misconduct within their own workforce, which includes staff, contractors, and implementing partners. This does not pertain to peacekeepers.

Around 83 cases are connected to the 10th Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 25% of those cases involve reported misconduct by WHO staff.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently stated that the remaining claims were connected to other organizations involved in the outbreak. The WHO received investigative findings solely pertaining to accusations against individuals affiliated with the WHO, such as consultants and contractors.

Lisa McClennon, director of IOS, stated that as of 2021, we have listed 25 individuals who are accused of sexual misconduct in the U.N. Clear Check database to prevent them from being employed in the U.N. system again in the future.

“Multiple individuals have been let go, including five employees who were found to have engaged in sexual misconduct during their time with the company. Additionally, several former employees were notified that their behavior would have resulted in termination if they were still employed.”

On August 1, 2018, the Democratic Republic of Congo declared its tenth Ebola outbreak in the unstable Eastern provinces. The epidemic was officially declared over by the World Health Organization on June 25, 2020, after claiming the lives of 2,299 individuals.

In November 2021, a dedicated team was established by WHO to combat sexual misconduct and eliminate exploitative actions within the organization. This decision was prompted by a scandal involving sexual misconduct that occurred during the Ebola epidemic and involved multiple responders, peacekeepers, U.N. staff, and contractors.

McClennon stated that the report identified 83 possible offenders who were involved in the 2018-2020 operation in the DRC.

McClennon stated that the WHO has been appropriately addressing each of these cases by sharing information with national authorities, referring to other U.N. agencies, and sending case closure letters to the individuals involved. He also mentioned that disciplinary action is being taken in confirmed cases, although the reports remain confidential.

According to the World Health Organization, the regions with the most reported cases of sexual assault perpetrators are Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Gamhewage stated that they prefer not to disclose the countries involved in order to avoid identifying potential suspects and potentially disrupting the investigation.

A representative from the WHO expressed concerns that populations living in these areas are at a high risk for sexual abuse. This is due to the fact that a significant number of countries in these regions are affected by health crises and humanitarian disasters. The large presence of the United Nations in these countries is a response to the urgent and extensive needs of the population.

Sexual misconduct occurs when there is a power imbalance and that power is used for sexual exploitation. In the past, this behavior went unpunished.

“However, the efforts we have put in place have resulted in an increase in complaints and concerns being brought to our attention,” stated Gamhewage. “Therefore, it is unlikely that we will see a decrease in numbers in the near future. Our goal is to bring all of these numbers to light so that Lisa [McClennon] and her team can determine which ones require further investigation.”

According to Gamhewage, it is crucial to hear and understand the accounts of victims and survivors.

She stated that we must acknowledge the potential risk and take preventative measures.

Gamhewage stated that while it may not be possible to completely eliminate sexual misconduct, the goal is to have a zero tolerance policy rather than zero incidents.