More than 50 women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) say that they were sexually abused by humanitarian health workers during an Ebola outbreak, according to a new report.
The report was released on Tuesday by non-governmental organization the New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. It found that the alleged perpetrators are, for the most part, employees of the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as workers from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), World Vision, Oxfam, Alima, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The report states that these attacks took place between 2018 and 2020 in the Beni region, which was then facing a health crisis due to an upsurge in Ebola cases.
The majority of the 51 women interviewed said that they had been coerced into sex in exchange for job-related favors during this period. Hired on a short-term contract basis as cooks, cleaners, and social workers, some of them were earning twice as much as the national average, but lived under the threat of having their employment contracts terminated if they refused to comply with the demands of their abusers.
While the women targeted by these incidents are now testifying, some say they were ashamed to report the abuse in the past.
"I was terrified. I felt disgusting," one of them said in an interview. "I haven't even told my mother about this."
The full list of the nationalities of the aid workers involved is still unknown, but the report states that some of the abusers were from Belgium, France, Canada, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, and Guinea.
Several local drivers and aid workers have since confirmed the allegations, stating that such abusive behavior was common in the region.
Nidhi Kapur, a gender consultant for CARE International, noted that the abuses were not only common in Beni, but also in other regions affected by Ebola. The practice was even described as a "passport to employment."
Meanwhile, the WHO reacted to these allegations in a statement issued Tuesday.
The statement said that the attacks were "unacceptable" and that they will be "robustly investigated."
"The betrayal of people in the communities we serve is reprehensible," the statement read. "We do not tolerate such behaviour in any of our staff, contractors, or partners. The director-general has initiated a thorough review of the specific allegations, as well as broader protection issues in health emergency response settings. WHO has a zero-tolerance policy with regard to sexual exploitation and abuse."
The allegations that came to light on Tuesday come two years after a similar scandal that sent shockwaves through the international humanitarian aid sector. In 2018, Oxfam faced similar accusations; the organization had then pledged to put an end to such behavior.