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Sex-for-jobs schemes were an open secret during the Democratic Republic of Congo's recent Ebola outbreak, half a dozen senior U.N. officials and NGO workers told The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation during an expose published this week.

Strategies put in place by the United Nations and other NGOs to end such behaviour largely failed during the outbreak from 2018 to June this year, aid officials and workers, gender analysts, and researchers said.

Fifty-one women told the nearly year-long investigation that they had been sexually exploited or abused by largely foreign men identifying as aid workers in Beni, the hub of the outbreak.

Not one said she knew of a hotline, email address, or person to contact to report the incidents.

"Knowing the poverty of the population, many consultants amused themselves by using sexual blackmail for hiring," said one World Health Organization employee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

A health worker dressed in a protective suit talks to medical staff at the newly constructed MSF(Doctors Without Borders) Ebola treatment centre in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, August 4, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

In the investigation, the largest number of accusations - made by 30 women - involved men who identified themselves as being with the WHO. 

Other organizations named by women included the U.N. Children's Fund UNICEF, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Oxfam, World Vision, the U.N. migration agency IOM, medical charity ALIMA and Congo's health ministry.

The WHO pledged this week to investigate the allegations uncovered but would not say if it had received complaints against staff or contractors during the Ebola response. ALIMA and World Vision also vowed to investigate.

Most of the others said they needed more information to follow up. Police heard rumours of the abuse but no victim came forward, said commander Lokango Ebaleongandi in Beni.

The town of Beni in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, August 22, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Stringer

In a survey as part of the investigation, 18 agencies involved in the Ebola response said they had received no complaints of sexual exploitation. Six groups said they had received a total of 22 cases, six of which were substantiated.

"If you're not getting reports, then something is going wrong," said Jane Connors, a long-serving U.N. staffer who in 2017 became its first victims' advocate, based in New York.

Aid sector experts blamed a male-dominated operation with little funding to combat sexual abuse, vast income and power imbalances, and a failure to win locals' trust - problems seen in numerous other emergency responses.

From Bosnia to Haiti, sex abuse and exploitation scandals have shaken the aid sector for decades - denting the trust of local populations, donors, and taxpayers.

The U.N. and NGOs have repeatedly vowed to ramp up efforts to crack down on sexual exploitation and abuse but last year the U.N. said 175 such allegations were made against its staff.

In Congo, few women believed they could get justice. Many said they could not afford to lose their jobs while others feared being stigmatised by family or community.

"The fear of retribution is so high," said Alina Potts, a researcher at the Global Women's Institute at George Washington University and a former aid worker. "They need to have a lot of trust in that overall system to come forward."

Up to 80% of survivors globally - not just those in humanitarian crises - do not report sexual assault, for a range of reasons, said Miranda Brown, formerly with the U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"Typically, survivors and victims do not use standard reporting mechanisms but report to persons of trust."

‘I didn’t know where to report’

A woman shields herself from the sun with an umbrella in Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo, October 8, 2019. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Aid agencies deployed thousands of workers into eastern Congo when Ebola erupted, sensitive to criticism of acting slowly in the 2014-16 outbreak in West Africa.

But a network to prevent sex abuse was not set up until 14 months into the crisis, according to an internal report by the inter-agency Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) Network seen by reporters.

Despite U.N. pledges to work more closely with locals, the report said there was poor communication about what constituted sexual abuse and how to report it.

Agencies each had their own hotlines, email addresses, and suggestion boxes for receiving complaints, which was confusing for victims, said Fidelia Odjo, the U.N. coordinator for the prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation in Congo.

Ebola patients are seen inside of the Biosecure Emergency Care Unit (CUBE) at the ALIMA (The Alliance for International Medical Action) Ebola treatment centre in Beni, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, March 31, 2019.Picture taken March 31, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

"I didn't know where to report him and I didn't have much trust in the police," said one woman, who said she was asked for sex by a doctor who said he worked for the WHO. She refused and was denied a job. Her friend, who agreed to sex, was hired.

While some $700 million was spent on the Ebola response, the network to combat abuse was crippled by lack of funding, receiving only $40,000 from the U.N. three months before the outbreak was over, according to the PSEA network report.

A "lessons learnt" section said agencies should talk to staff about sexual abuse at the start of an operation.

Part of the problem was the operation was dominated by men, said gender experts. Men made up 81% of Ebola responders working for the WHO, it said in a 2019 report, while 15 of the other 18 organisations surveyed said their teams were mostly male.

Healthcare workers adjust gear before they enter a room where is a baby suspected of dying of Ebola in Beni, North Kivu Province of Democratic Republic of Congo, December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

"Increasing the number of women in senior roles in operational settings would clearly reduce the number of sexual exploitation and abuse cases," said Brown, who testified to the U.S. Senate about the U.N.'s child sex abuse scandal in Central African Republic (CAR).

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched a fanfare of initiatives after a 2016 report said the U.N. failed to take action on allegations involving peacekeepers in CAR.

To boost transparency, in 2017 Guterres required all U.N.  entities to report abuse allegations in a real-time database.

The WHO has only just "now" agreed to post their allegations, according to U.N. Secretary-General spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said the agency had been reporting substantiated allegations annually to its governing body, the World Health Assembly.

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference organized by Geneva Association of United Nations Correspondents (ACANU) amid the COVID-19 outbreak, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva Switzerland July 3, 2020. Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

The WHO's latest global report shows 10 investigations into sexual exploitation and abuse since 2017, including one in 2020.

Looking ahead, a review of aid in Congo commissioned by the UK government recommended boosting funding to local women's groups to encourage victims to report.

Involving more women in emergency responses could also help change the power dynamics in aid delivery, Potts said. 

"We can't keep putting (women and girls) in these risky situations and expecting the outcomes to change," she said.

Additional reporting by Sam Mednick in Beni and Butembo, Guylain Balume in Goma, Philip Kleinfeld, Paisley Dodds and Izzy Ellis in London. Additional support was provided by a Congolese journalist and a Congolese researcher whose names are being withheld for security reasons.

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