World Health Organization paid compensation money to sexual abuse victims in Congo

Earlier this year, the doctor who leads the World Health Organization’s efforts to prevent sexual abuse travelled to Congo to address the biggest known sex scandal in the UN health agency’s history: the abuse of well over 100 local women by staffers and others during a deadly Ebola outbreak.

According to an internal WHO report from Dr Gaya Gamhewage’s trip in March, one of the abused women she met gave birth to a baby with “a malformation that required special medical treatment,” meaning even more costs for the young mother in one of the world’s poorest countries.

To help victims like her, the WHO has paid $250 (€233) each to at least 104 women in Congo who say they were sexually abused or exploited by officials working to stop Ebola. That amount per victim is less than a single day’s expenses for some UN officials working in the Congolese capital – and $19 more than what Gamhewage received per day during her three-day visit – according to internal documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The amount covers typical living expenses for less than four months in a country where, the WHO documents noted, many people survive on less than $2.15 a day.

Health workers wearing protective suits tend to to an Ebola victim kept in an isolation tent in Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Saturday, July 13, 2019.

The payments to women didn’t come freely. To receive the cash, they were required to complete training courses intended to help them start “income-generating activities.” The payments appear to try to circumvent the UN’s stated policy that it doesn’t pay reparations by including the money in what it calls a “complete package” of support.

Many Congolese women who were sexually abused have still received nothing. WHO said in a confidential document last month that about a third of the known victims were “impossible to locate.” The WHO said nearly a dozen women declined its offer.

The total of $26,000 (€24,244) that WHO has provided to the victims equals about 1% of the $2 million, WHO-created “survivor assistance fund” for victims of sexual misconduct, primarily in Congo.

In interviews, recipients told the AP the money they received was hardly enough, but they wanted justice even more.

Paula Donovan, who co-directs the Code Blue campaign to eliminate what it calls impunity for sexual misconduct in the UN, described the WHO payments to victims of sexual abuse and exploitation as “perverse.”

“It’s not unheard of for the UN to give people seed money so they can boost their livelihoods, but to mesh that with compensation for a sexual assault, or a crime that results in the birth of a baby, is unthinkable,” she said.

Requiring the women to attend training before receiving the cash set uncomfortable conditions for victims of wrongdoing seeking help, Donovan added.

Residents wait in line to receive the Ebola vaccine in Beni, Congo DRC on July 13, 2019.

The two women who met with Gamhewage told her that what they most wanted was for the “perpetrators to be brought to account so they could not harm anyone else,” the WHO documents said. The women were not named.

“There is nothing we can do to make up for (sexual abuse and exploitation),” Gamhewage told the AP in an interview.

The WHO told the AP that criteria to determine its “victim survivor package” included the cost of food in Congo and “global guidance on not dispensing more cash than what would be reasonable for the community, in order to not expose recipients to further harm.” Gamhewage said the WHO was following recommendations set by experts at local charities and other UN agencies.

In this Thursday, March 18, 2021 file photo, Shekinah stands near her home in Beni, eastern Congo.

“Obviously, we haven’t done enough,” Gamhewage said. She added the WHO would ask survivors directly what further support they wanted.

The WHO has also helped defray medical costs for 17 children born as a result of sexual exploitation and abuse, she said.

At least one woman who said she was sexually exploited and impregnated by a WHO doctor negotiated compensation that agency officials signed off on, including a plot of land and health care. The doctor also agreed to pay $100 (€93.25)a month until the baby was born in a deal “to protect the integrity and reputation of WHO.”

But in interviews with the AP, other women who say they were sexually exploited by WHO staff asserted the agency hasn’t done enough.

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