More than 20 Congolese women have accused aid workers of sexual abuse in new claims that include rape and unwanted pregnancies, with United Nations investigators uncovering similar allegations of workers exploiting vulnerable women.
The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to 22 women in Butembo who said male aid workers responding to an Ebola crisis in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo offered them jobs in exchange for sex.
The claims come as donors pressure aid groups to do more to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse while assisting the world’s most vulnerable, and follow a joint investigation by reporters last year in which 51 women in the nearby city of Beni made similar allegations.
Several workers have already been dismissed in the wake of the initial investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Aid organisations said several other investigations were underway.
Fourteen of the 22 women in Butembo – an aid hub during the Ebola outbreak – said the men identified themselves as workers with the World Health Organisation (WHO), one of the lead agencies in the crisis which killed 2 200 people between 2018 and 2020.
“WHO is committed to taking prompt and robust action, including collaborating with relevant national authorities on criminal proceedings, in all cases where WHO staff may be found guilty of perpetrating (sexual exploitation and abuse),” said WHO spokeswoman Marcia Poole.
A total of seven organisations were named, including two other U.N. agencies.
One woman said she was raped by a man who said he was with the WHO, and reporters learned of three others who said they had become pregnant.
One of those women died after a botched abortion as she tried to conceal the pregnancy from her husband and children, her sister said.
“If I give you work, what will you give me in return?” read a WhatsApp message shared with reporters by another woman who said she drank a poisonous concoction to terminate her pregnancy – common in Congo, where abortion is illegal.
She said the message was from a Congolese man she met in a bar in 2019 who had arrived in a vehicle with the WHO logo.
The message continued: “You are a woman. I think you know what you can give me.”
The woman said she had sex with the man and was then employed by the WHO as a cleaner. She said after she was given work, she was expected to sleep with him regularly.
When she became pregnant, the man blocked her on WhatsApp and she ended up having an abortion, she said.
‘SEXUALLY EXPLOITATIVE RELATIONSHIPS’
The WHO said the UN’s investigative Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) had identified two women in Butembo as “potentially having had sexually exploitative relationships with individuals connected to WHO”.
It said the information would be shared with an independent commission set up last October to investigate claims of sexual exploitation and abuse during Congo’s Ebola outbreak.
In response to the allegations of rape, pregnancy and the woman’s death from abortion-related complications, the WHO said it had been instructed to refer all allegations relating to the response during that time period to the commission.
“The commission will take the lead in investigating these allegations and will issue recommendations to the Director-General,” Poole said in an email.
“Clearly, there is a gap in the number of allegations (reporters) received and those reported. There may be a number of reasons for this – from reporting mechanisms that needed improving, to victims’ reluctance to speak up.”
A spokeswoman for the independent commission, Kadidia Coulibaly, said its team began investigating on the ground in early May and aimed to publish its report at the end of August.
Coulibaly said the commission “will spare no efforts” in reaching out to all victims and gathering their details and testimonies “with the utmost security, comfort and discretion”.
“The presumed culprits, once identified, will also be heard by the investigating commission according to international standards,” she said in emailed comments.
Over a five-month period, reporters in Butembo conducted more than 40 interviews, with the 22 women, aid workers, hotel staff and others who worked in the Ebola response. In total 23 women were involved including the mother who died.
Most women were hired as cleaners in Ebola treatment centres where they would disinfect clothing and bedding for the sick and for responders. Others went to villages where they burned the belongings of Ebola victims or worked on awareness campaigns.
Medical records and phone messages were reviewed by reporters to cross-check information and rule out copy-cat testimonies.
Full names were given for nine men and partial names for seven. Four of the men were thought to be foreign aid workers and 18 were Congolese, mainly from the capital, Kinshasa.
Facebook profiles matched some of the men’s names with the organisations they said they worked for.
Some of the women showed reporters their identification badges with organisations’ logos and photos of them doing jobs they said they were given after having sex with the men.
‘LAST SAFE HAVEN’
In September’s investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Beni – 60 km (38 miles) northeast of Butembo – the 51 women said dozens of men, mostly foreigners, had coerced them into having sex in exchange for jobs.
The majority of those claims were also against men who said they worked for the WHO, which initially said the allegations stemming from the investigation were under review internally and encouraged the women involved to contact the WHO.
The following month, the health agency announced the creation of the independent commission “to swiftly establish the facts, identify and support survivors, ensure that any ongoing abuse has stopped, and hold perpetrators to account”.
WHO spokeswoman Poole said “appropriate” action would be taken once the commission delivered its findings.
A sweeping report by British lawmakers in January found sexual exploitation was endemic in the aid sector, which they dubbed the “last safe haven” for abusers.
Lawmakers launched the inquiry after being frustrated over the sector’s failure to stem sexual exploitation and abuse in the wake of the 2018 Oxfam sex scandal in Haiti, where its staff were accused of using sex workers, some underage.
In April, Oxfam was back in the news – this time with two senior managers in Congo suspended amid accusations of sexual exploitation, bullying, and fraud.
No women in Butembo told reporters they had been abused by Oxfam workers, but the charity said it had confirmed one of 51 cases reported in Beni last year, which involved a woman who said she was raped by an Oxfam worker.
Oxfam said the man was no longer working for the charity, and the woman was being given assistance. The charity said it could not comment further on the separate investigation into allegations against its Congo staff.
“Aid workers knew what was happening,” said one former Oxfam worker, who was part of the Ebola response in Congo and spoke on condition of anonymity. “There were reports made about this behaviour. It was happening everywhere.”
“We are doing everything possible to improve accountability and end sexual exploitation and abuse through strong prevention and response measures, centered on victims and survivors,” said Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
A RAPE CLAIM
The latest allegations in Butembo included a rape claim.
One woman said she thought she was going for a job interview. Instead, she said she was raped in a hotel room by a Cameroonian man who said he worked for the WHO.
In 2019, the mother of four was told by a friend working for the WHO that her supervisor was looking to hire a new cleaner.
There was one condition, said the friend: “No matter what he tells you, just agree”.
The two women went to the man’s hotel room. After a brief introduction, the friend took a phone call and left the room.
The man quickly came to the point, the 32-year-old woman said – have sex with him and she could have a job.
She said she tried to leave but the man blocked her.
“He pushed me onto the bed, forced himself on top of me and started to take my clothes off. I tried to get out from under him, but he was so strong and he held me there. Then, he violated me,” she said.
“It was devastating. I thought I’d come to talk about employment – like a job interview.”
Several days later, she said he called to tell her she could start work.
“Every day at work it was miserable,” she said. “He was there.”
After a few weeks, she said she began to feel pain and went to a clinic where she tested positive for syphilis. She showed a reporter her lab test results.
Her husband still doesn’t know of the alleged rape.
“I still feel guilty about it,” she said.
The WHO said it was unable to respond to the allegation of rape but would refer the information to the independent commission.
Another woman said her sister died in 2019 after paying $300 on the black market for a concoction to end her pregnancy.
She sought an abortion after having sex with a man who said he worked for the WHO and gave her a job as a cleaner.
Desperate for money to provide for her three children – and with a husband who had been away for months in another part of Congo – she agreed to have sex with him and was terrified when she fell pregnant, fearing her husband would soon return.
She thought the abortion would have allowed her to keep the secret from her husband and children.
“If it weren’t for this Ebola response, my sister would still be alive and fighting for her children,” said the woman, 37, whose identity has been withheld to ensure the privacy of the family.
The WHO said it was unable to respond to the allegation but would refer the information they were given to the independent commission.
Much of the alleged abuse in Butembo occurred in a handful of hotels used by aid workers.
With green lawns and tropical flowers, Hotel Butembo was a popular haunt for aid workers, who plied women with drinks and coaxed them up to their rooms, four hotel staff said.
The workers spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of losing their jobs and asked that their positions not be identified given the small number of staff at Hotel Butembo.
The medical charity Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) occupied the property at the beginning of the response in 2018, but after unidentified assailants attacked its treatment centre in February 2019, it withdrew and WHO workers moved in.
One hotel worker, who was an employee at the time and has been employed there for three years, told reporters that MSF staff had strictly enforced a ban on outside visitors and a night-time curfew.
“When WHO took over, everything changed,” the worker said.
“We would see young women from town constantly entering at the front gate … All the rules were relaxed.”
Another hotel worker described women arriving in marked WHO vehicles, and noted that several women became pregnant.
The WHO noted the claims but said it was not aware of any allegations of misconduct by its staff at Hotel Butembo.
A hotel worker, who was an employee at the time and has been employed there for several years, said: “What was happening here was plain to see. Anybody living here would’ve known that it was happening. It wasn’t a secret.”
Staff at Hotel Butembo declined to share the owner’s phone number or email. A message with a contact number left by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the reception desk for the owners went unanswered.
OTHER ORGANISATIONS ACCUSED
In addition to the 14 claims against the WHO, two women in Butembo accused workers who said they were from the UN migration agency IOM; another two identified men who said they were with Congo’s health ministry.
IOM said it had not received any such claims relating to Butembo, and the UN’s OIOS was unable to corroborate the claim made by one woman against the migration agency in last year’s investigation in Beni.
Congo’s ministry of health did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Minister of Human Rights Andre Lite Asebea said “investigations have not progressed”, referring to the eight allegations made against health ministry workers in Beni last year.
Single claims were made in Butembo against men who said they worked for the UN Children’s Fund UNICEF, the medical charity ALIMA, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the International Medical Corps (IMC).
UNICEF said it was not aware of any allegations in Butembo but that OIOS had investigated last year’s claims in Beni, where three women said they were abused by men who said they worked for UNICEF. One former staff member is under investigation.
ALIMA said it launched an investigation following last year’s reports of abuse in Beni, two of which involved ALIMA, but added that it had not uncovered any such allegations.
IMC said it had not received any complaints from Butembo but had corroborated two complaints since August 2018 in Congo involving three staff who are no longer employed by the organisation. A third complaint is still under investigation.
IRC said it was “deeply concerned by these reports” and is “continuously investing in and improving our systems to keep staff and clients safe”.
‘ON MY OWN’
Despite the UN’s “zero tolerance” policy towards sexual abuse and exploitation, the women in both Beni and Butembo told reporters they did not report the allegations.
Some said they were desperate to keep their jobs, while others feared being shamed by their family or community.
The women said the abuse took place in an area where jobs are scarce. Some 27 million people are facing acute hunger in the country.
Much of eastern Congo remains a hotbed for armed conflict, despite a formal peace agreement in 2003. President Felix Tshisekedi this month declared martial law in two eastern provinces amid a surge in violence that has left hundreds dead.
“Given that we have record levels of unemployment it is difficult (for people) to speak out against any act that brings us work,” said Alphonsine Lusenge, head of the Association for the Defense of Women’s Rights in Butembo.
Women have paid a high price for their silence.
One 27-year-old said she is now homeless and jobless and has an eight-month-old baby to support.
The woman said she became pregnant after having sex with a Congolese man who said he was a chauffeur with the WHO in Butembo and promised her a job in exchange for sex.
Soon after she was given work with the WHO, taking travellers’ temperatures at a roadblock. When she later learned that she was pregnant, the man denied the child was his and blocked her calls, she said.
The WHO said it was unable to respond to the allegation but would refer the information to the independent commission.
As the pregnancy progressed, the woman said she felt sick and lost her job. When her family found out, they kicked her out of the house.
“I’m tired,” said the woman, holding her child and describing how she had been staying with different friends.
“If I didn’t have church, I’d just want to roll up and die,” she said through tears. “I have a child to raise on my own, no home, my family won’t speak to me.”