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Panel finds 80 alleged abuse cases tied to WHO's Congo work

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BENI, Congo (AP) — A panel commissioned by the World Health Organization has identified more than 80 alleged cases of sex abuse during the U.N. health agency's response to an Ebola outbreak in Congo, including allegations implicating 20 WHO staff members.

The panel released its findings on Tuesday, months after an Associated Press investigation found senior WHO management was informed of multiple abuse claims in 2019 but failed to stop the harassment and even promoted one of the managers involved.

The report exposes the most widescale sexual wrongdoing linked to a U.N. institution in years, harkening back to the dark years when blue-helmeted peacekeepers were regularly accused of and found to have misused their positions for sexual misconduct.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the document “harrowing” reading, It described how “Jolianne” – said to be the youngest of the alleged victims – had recounted that a WHO driver had stopped to offer her a ride home as she sold phone cards on a roadside in the town of Mangina in April 2019.

“Instead, he took her to a hotel where she says she was raped by this person,” the report said.

Malick Coulibaly, a panel member, said during a media briefing Tuesday that there were nine allegations of rape. The women interviewed said the perpetrators used no birth control, resulting in some pregnancies. Some women said the men who had abused them forced them to have an abortion, Coulibaly said.

WHO chief Tedros appointed the panel's co-chairs to investigate the claims last October after media reports claimed unnamed humanitarian officials sexually abused women during the Ebola outbreak that began in Congo in 2018.

At the time, Tedros declared he was “outraged” and vowed that any staffers connected to the abuse would be dismissed immediately. Western diplomatic sources said four people have been fired and two placed on administrative leave, based on a closed-door briefing involving WHO that was provided to diplomatic officials in Geneva on Tuesday.”

The review team was able to obtain the identity of 83 alleged perpetrators, both Congolese nationals and foreigners. In 21 cases, the review team was able to establish with certainty that the alleged perpetrators were WHO employees during the Ebola response.

The AP published evidence in May showing that Dr. Michel Yao, a senior WHO official overseeing the Congo outbreak response was informed in writing of multiple sex abuse allegations. Yao was later promoted and recently headed WHO’s response to the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, which ended in June.

WHO doctor Jean-Paul Ngandu and two other agency officials also signed a contract promising to buy land for a young woman Ngandu allegedly impregnated; Ngandu said he was pressured to do so to protect WHO’s reputation.

The panel said that during its interview with Tedros, he said he was made aware of the sex abuse allegations when they were revealed in the press and had not heard of the incident involving Ngandu until the AP published its story.

Some of the women who say they were victimized by WHO officials said they hoped those involved would be severely punished.

Shekinah, a young Congolese woman who accepted an offer to have sex with WHO’s Boubacar Diallo in exchange for a job, said she hoped he would be sanctioned by the U.N. health agency and barred from working for WHO again.

“I would like him and other doctors who will be charged to be punished severely so that it will serve as a lesson to other untouchable doctors of the WHO,” said Shekinah, who declined to give her last name for fear of retribution. “He has no place at WHO.”

WHO chief Tedros made 14 trips to Congo during the last outbreak and publicly commended Boubacar Diallo's work. The AP spoke with three women who said Diallo offered them jobs in exchange for sex.

The independent panel's report decried belated training for staffers to prevent sexual abuse or exploitation, a refusal from managers to consider cases that were only provided verbally and not in writing, and other breakdowns and managerial shortcomings in handling the alleged misdeeds in nine separate cities or villages in the region.

Julie Londo, a member of the Congolese Union of Media Women (UCOFEM), a women’s organization that works to counter rape and sexual abuse of women in Congo, applauded WHO for punishing staffers involved in the abuse allegations but said more was needed.

“WHO must also think about reparation for the women who were traumatized by the rapes and the dozens of children who were born with unwanted pregnancies as a result of the rapes,” she said. “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.”

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Cheng reported from London. Jamey Keaten contributed reporting from Geneva.

Maria Cheng And Al-hadji Kudra Maliro, The Associated Press