Humanitarian organisations have historically had their fair share of corruption and exploitations in the very countries in which they’re supposed to provide aid. The latest scandal has put the World Health Organization (WHO) in the spotlight for swathes of sexual abuse cases at the hands of its aid workers during the Ebola crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). An investigation carried out by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian in 2020 prompted WHO to conduct an independent commission into the allegations made in DRC. The now released report cites accusations from over 50 women.
The women in question have accused aid workers who identified themselves as workers from a number of different charities and humanitarian organisations, including WHO, UNICEF, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, World Vision, Alima and IOM (the UN’s migration agency) for demanding sex as payment for work conducted throughout 2018 to 2020. The report that was first released yesterday, 28 September, has uncovered one of the largest sexual crimes that United Nations (UN) bodies have been linked to in many years.
A total number of 83 aid workers—21 of whom being WHO staff members—were accused of this sexual abuse and exploitation of women and girls during the Ebola outbreak in the country; nine of these (over 50) accusations alleged rape at the hands of both Congolese nationals and foreign workers. The details of the findings are incredibly disturbing, with local women citing that they experienced being “ambushed” in hospitals and plied with alcohol. According to commission member Malick Coulibaly, many of the accused male abusers did not wear condoms which resulted in 29 of the women falling pregnant, 22 of which were carried to term, and some being pushed to have abortions.
The report cites an accusation made against a doctor from WHO, as well as two other agency officials, for allegedly offering to purchase land for a woman who had fallen pregnant. “The review team has [also] established that the presumed victims were promised jobs in exchange for sexual relations or in order to keep their jobs,” Coulibaly continued in a press briefing. A 14-year-old girl, given the name ‘Jolianne’, disclosed to the commission that in April 2019, she was approached by a driver for WHO and offered to be driven home; instead she was taken to a hotel where she was subsequently raped and later, gave birth to his child.
The report showcases how the male perpetrators working for such organisations like WHO utilised the Ebola crisis and financial burden of such women and girls to exploit them with promises for jobs or to keep their jobs in exchange for sex. The commission is said to have blamed WHO for its negligence in screening the workers it deployed to aid in the Ebola crisis and argues that this is simply one example of structural issues in the organisation’s sexual abuse investigations.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s Director General, stated in a press conference that “this is a dark day for WHO.” He then pledged a reform of the organisation’s current policies on sexual abuse, “I’m sorry for what was done to you by people who are employed by WHO to serve and protect you … It is my top priority that the perpetrators are not excused, but held to account.” Passy Mulabama, executive director and founder of the Action and Development Initiative for the Protection of Women and Children in the DRC (AIDPROFEN), told Al Jazeera, “The DRC has been affected by conflicts for so many years … and it’s just unacceptable that humanitarians can still be responsible for sexual assault and sexual exploitation of women and children.”
Julie Londo, a member of the Congolese Union of Media Women (UCOFEM), praised WHO’s pledge to punish accused staff but also stated that the public health body needs to go further, “WHO must also think about reparation[s] for the women who were traumatised by the rapes and the dozens of children who were born with unwanted pregnancies as a result of the rapes.”
“There are a dozen girls in Butembo and Beni who had children with doctors during the Ebola epidemic, but today others are sent back by their families because they had children with foreigners … We will continue our fight to end these abuses.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been under fire due to a controversial statement made in the first draft of its 2022-2030 Global Alcohol Action Plan. In the plan, which has been called “medieval”, WHO suggests that there should be a “prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing-age.” It is the latter half of this statement that has caused the stir. Since the ‘childbearing age’ for women and people with female reproductive organs spans from the ages of 18 to 50, it’s obvious why the organisation was slammed for its ignorant and patriarchal rhetoric. The story of our lives, isn’t it?
Before I continue with how obviously problematic this is, there must be a clarification made on behalf of WHO. In spite of some of the incendiary headlines you may have seen, the Global Alcohol Action Plan does not call for a ban on drinking for women in this age bracket. In a statement, WHO explains, “The current draft of WHO’s global action plan does not recommend abstinence of all women who are of an age at which they could become pregnant. However, it does seek to raise awareness of the serious consequences that can result from drinking alcohol while pregnant, even when the pregnancy is not yet known.”
Despite this, it’s still pretty bad. Okay, it’s really bad. Most people are aware of the dangers of alcohol and introducing measures to improve people’s health isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We could all try to be healthier, right? However, where a woman’s health is concerned, it’s never really about her, but about the hypothetical non-existent child she may have in the future. Chief Executive of abortion rights charity British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), Clare Murphy, released an official commentary on the action plan, “By treating all women—for 40 years of their lives—as little more than vessels, the WHO reduces women to little more than their reproductive capabilities.” Murphy continued on Twitter, writing, “We absolutely have to stand up to an agenda which increasingly treats every woman as ‘pre-pregnant’.”
This controversial statement from WHO, for many, continues to fuel the anti-abortion fire that has been spreading these past few years. With the US Supreme Court passing an anti-abortion decision and Poland passing a near-total ban on abortion in the first months of 2021 alone. But what if WHO is just actually concerned with the health of the future generation? Is it really about controlling women’s bodies? Yes, it is. Let me show you another reason why.
Ironically, WHO’s suggestion sits alongside its own statistics that showcase how alcohol misuse is much more prevalent in men than it is in women. Its statistical findings illustrate that around 700,000 women died globally of alcohol misuse in 2016. When comparing this to men, the number is over three times higher—2.3 million. It also removes men from accountability in childbearing. There have been numerous scientific studies that show the adverse effect alcohol consumption can have on sperm count. In one 2014 study, Professor Tina Kold Jensen of the University of Southern Denmark concluded “that even modest habitual alcohol consumption […] has adverse effects on semen quality.” They found that “alcohol consumption was also linked to changes in testosterone” in general.
If WHO really cared about the health of make-believe babies, then surely there would be fertility advice for men? No. Nothing. It’s almost laughable when you think of the real dangers women face in the environment of alcohol. The Institute of Alcohol Studies highlights “the strong relationship between alcohol and domestic abuse, violence and sexual assault. While alcohol should not be used as an excuse for those who perpetrate violence and abuse, neither should its influence be ignored.”
So maybe, just maybe, we can focus on the lives of actual real, alive women instead of human beings that don’t even exist yet. And hello? What if we don’t even want them to begin with. I don’t. I’m popping open a bottle right now.