A Christian who has worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with an international organisation says these kind of abuses are “a common practice in countries where there is impunity, and a rape and sexual exploitation culture”.
More than 50 women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have accused aid workers of large humanitarian NGOs of sexual abuse, during the 2018-2020 Ebola crisis, according to investigation published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian.
Several women said they were forced to have sex in exchange for a job, or to avoid the termination of a contract.
Among the entities that have been involved are the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) , ALIMA, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Christian NGO World Vision.
A 32-year-old woman and Ebola survivor said she “was phoned by a man who invited her to come for a counselling session at a hotel”, which was not strange, since “Ebola patients' telephone numbers were routinely taken for follow-up care after they were discharged”.
The investigation found out that “in the lobby, she accepted a soft drink. Hours later, she said she woke up naked and alone in a hotel room. She believes she was raped”.
“I lost my husband to Ebola. Instead of help, all I got was more trauma”, she added.
“So many women were affected by this”, said another witness of the investigation, who was forced to have sex with a man who said he was a WHO worker, to get a job.
“I can’t think of someone who worked in the response who didn't have to offer something”, she underlined.
One of the drivers who worked for the staff of different organizations has also pointed out that seeing this kind of cases “was so common. It wasn't just me; I'd say that the majority of us chauffeurs drove men or their victims to and from hotels for sexual arrangements like this. It was so regular, it was like buying food at the supermarket”.
Up to four drivers have confirmed that “doctors, health workers, and administrators used official drivers to shuttle women to the hotels and to their homes and offices”.
“This is a common practice in countries where there is impunity and a rape and sexual exploitation culture”, a Christian who has recently worked in Congo with an international organisation told Evangelical Focus. “When I talk about culture, I mean young students having to offer sexual services to their university teachers in order to pass exams, or women to offer their bodies to obtain paperwork they need”.
According to this source, in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, “corruption is high and there is little supervision on these matters”.
Furthermore, “these abusers are used to travel and work in countries where they have easy access to vulnerable people (mostly women and children, but also young men). This is especially true in humanitarian responses, but we could say the same of businessmen, or sexual tourism”.
With regard to humanitarian responses, “there have been many scandals in the past, the most famous one in the Balkans by UN staff and UN contractors, was turned into a movie, and most recently, Oxfam staff were accused of paying Haiti survivors for sex”.
Oxfam has stated that they “do everything in our power to prevent misconduct”, and now they are “investigating” the events “to act on allegations when they arise, including supporting survivors”.
Fadéla Chaib, spokeswoman of the WHO, the entity that has received the most accusations (30 in total), has underlined that they “would not tolerate such behaviour by any of our staff, contractors, or partners”.
“Spokespeople for IOM, MSF, UNICEF, and Congo's health ministry said in mid-September they had no knowledge of the accusations brought to their attention, and several said they would need more information to take action”, The New Humanitarian reports.
Among the testimonies collected by the investigation, five women reported that they were exploited by “men who said they worked for World Vision”. The Christiasn organisation has released a statement, stressing that they are “shocked and horrified”.
They explain that “when we first heard about these allegations, from the journalists involved in the article, we immediately launched a globally led investigation, which is still ongoing”.
“Sexual exploitation or abuse is unacceptable in any World Vision operation, and we will act on all the investigation’s findings”, the NGO adds.
They also commit to “reassess our own programmes in order to modify and make certain that our current systems are providing an environment where women feel safe to report any incidents”.
“As a Christian humanitarian organisation working in some of the most fragile and conflict-affected places in the world, our number one priority is the safety and well-being of children and vulnerable adults in our programming. We do not tolerate sexual exploitation, abuse or violence, whether committed by our staff, volunteers or contractors”, they conclude.
Such scandals “have triggered measures to fight sexual exploitation and abuse in international humanitarian organisations, where there are structures and channels for the victims to complain and for safe whistleblowing”, the Christian who has recently worked in Congo said.
However, “there are still gaps, especially in emergency responses such as the Ebola one in Congo. In such a humanitarian mission, staff rotate very fast, it’s hard to keep track, and the emergency response - by design, because it’s a temporary and urgently made organisation - will struggle to establish a structure and channels for complaint and whistle blowing”.