WHO to send prevention experts after sexual abuse scandal in Congo

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Following a damning sex abuse scandal implicating its workers in Democratic Republic of Congo, the World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday said it is deploying experts on preventing sexual exploitation in 10 “high-risk” countries.

The WHO has apologised to victims after a report on allegations of rape and sexual abuse by 83 aid workers who were sent to fight Ebola in the country between 2018 and 2020, a quarter of them employed by the organisation.

WHO’s major donor countries have publicly put the UN health agency under pressure on the issue.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus laid out his plans to respond to the crisis during a closed-door session with representatives of the 194 member states on Thursday, the UN health body told Reuters.

Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Venezuela, and Yemen will be the locations for the work, the WHO said in a statement to Reuters.

One expert has already gone to Congo, the agency said in an earlier statement.

The plan, which is being finalised, outlines immediate or short-term actions through March 2022 to complete investigations and launch a “series of internal reviews and audits” to ensure a “wholesale reform of WHO structures and culture,” the WHO said in the first statement.

The UN health agency said it has allocated an initial $7.6 million “to immediately strengthen its capacity to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse and exploitation, in 10 countries with the highest risk profile”.

The agency would implement a long-term programme to spend double that annually, it added.

Major Western donors, led by the United States, have pressed the WHO to launch a deeper external independent investigation, demanding how the scandal was allowed to happen, diplomats told Reuters earlier this week.

It was not clear whether Tedros was committing to a probe by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services or another external body, several diplomats said.

“The EU and its member states expect WHO’s senior management to take every possible action to consistently address the systemic issues and to follow up on each individual case, including possible judicial actions. It is clear from the (commission’s) report that WHO has a lot of work to do,” the European Union said in a statement to the meeting.

Effective mechanisms for prevention, safe reporting and robust responses needed to be enhanced, the EU said.

Another diplomat, speaking before the meeting, said that the WHO had made a “good start” in its response and that the report showed “systemic failures” of management, but that donors were not clamouring for dismissals.

Health officials in eastern Congo confirmed a second case of Ebola on Thursday in the latest flare-up of the deadly virus.

Among the first members of a 15-person WHO surge team deployed to Beni, in North Kivu province, is an expert in the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, the WHO said.

The expert will brief WHO employees and partners on how to “prevent any inappropriate and abusive behaviour”, it said. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)

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