31st May 2023


Aid agencies clam up in Congo sex-for-work scandal

  • Aid agencies operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo fighting Ebola during the 2018-2020 outbreak have been accused of sex abuse (Photo:
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Major aid agencies will not disclose information sent to the European Commission as part of a probe into sexual exploitation of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

They say it could harm their reputations and make it more difficult to raise funding. The European Commission has 25 documents, including emails, in its possession that contains "information about potential crimes".

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Those documents provide insights into reported abuse carried out by numerous aid agency staff against local women during a 2018 to 2020 Ebola outbreak in the DRC.

The commission, a large donor to the agencies, had requested the information following revelations of the abuse by Reuters and New Humanitarian in September 2020.

The outlets say more than 100 women were forced into sex-for-work schemes in order to land jobs with the aid agencies. At least 30 of those women implicated workers from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO had since confirmed the reports, noting that its personnel and other aid workers had exploited women for sex. They found that over 80 perpetrators of the abuse had worked for WHO and partners. The crimes include rape, forced abortions and the sexual abuse of a 13-year old girl.

The UN child agency Unicef, Oxfam, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), International Organisation for Migration (IOM), World Vision and Alima, also stood accused.

EUobserver earlier this week received a partial disclosure of the 25 documents in the European Commission's possession after having first filed a document access request two years ago.

But a handful of the most sensitive files were still refused at the request of the World Vision Network, IOM, and Unicef.

Commercial interest

World Vision Network, a Christian humanitarian organisation, evoked the protection of its commercial interests in it refusal to release four of the 25 documents.

"Releasing the emails, even in partial form, will undermine the protection of [our] commercial interests," they told the European Commission.

"By 'commercial' we define our activities and reputation as a non-profit humanitarian organisation," they added.

They say disclosure "might in return affect our ability to raise funds in the public." It also said that they had not received any EU commission funding for its Ebola response in the DRC.

The IOM made similar arguments and refused to allow the commission to disclose one document.

They say disclosure would put at risk "survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse" as well as IOM staff, contractors, government and consular authorities in the DRC.

"This information is treated as sensitive confidential information since the lives of the migrants, staff and partners are IOM's highest priority'," they told the European Commission.

Unicef also declined, citing the organisation's "privileges and immunities" as well as the safety and security of its own staff.

In the wake of the revelations, all three announced internal investigations. Asked about the outcome of those investigations, none have yet responded.

The New Humanitarian, in a follow up report last month, said that 26 of the abused women had been impregnated, including a 15 year-old child.

"She is now raising a three-year-old daughter on her own," reported The New Humanitarian.

The New Humanitarian also revealed that five accused staff from Unicef, and one each accused workers from World Vision and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The partial disclosure

World Vision, in an email to DG Echo on 4 February 2021, said their investigation into the allegations had been finalised and that "disciplinary measures have been taken".

They also said they are designing an "organisation-wide lessons learned process to help to reduce the risk of similar cases to happen in future an [sic] to further improve our safety practices."

Alima says the allegations revealed by the New Humanitarian also do not involve any projects funded by the European Commission's department of aid, DG Echo.

In an email on 5 October 2020, DG Echo asks Alima if any measure had been taken to "ensure the perpetrator in nor [sic] re-hired by another organisation."

Partial email correspondence was also released between the IRC and DG Echo.

"None of these cases involved DG Echo as a donor. Donors impacted were notified of the allegations and findings following investigations," said IRC in an email to the DG Echo on 24 November, 2020.


EU has 26 documents on alleged NGO sex abuse in DRC

A joint investigation last year by Reuters and The New Humanitarian revealed alleged sexual abuse by people working for the World Health Organization and other leading NGOs. The European Commission has since collected over two dozen documents on the allegations.


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