Open letter to the World Health Organization to act now to prevent and eliminate all forms of sexual violence and harassment
10 December, 2021
On Human Rights Day and on the last day of the 16 days of activism against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), Women in Global Health in partnership with Actions pour la Réinsertion sociale de la Femme, FEMNET, and more than 140+ civil society organizations (CSOs) across the globe have sent a letter to the World Health Organization (WHO). Calling for them to act now to prevent and eliminate all forms of sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment (SEAH) in health. In the letter we detail recommendaitons for follow-up to the SEAH incidents that occured during the tenth Ebola response in Democratic Republic of Congo.
We wish to express our deep concern at the sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls by WHO staff during the tenth Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) detailed in the report by the Independent Commission. We stand with survivors of SEAH and whistleblowers in their pursuit of justice and the truth, and we call on WHO to act now to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls.
Allegations of SEAH in the tenth Ebola Response in DRC were made against staff of several UN and international aid agencies, in addition to WHO, highlighting the need for a sector wide approach. Given its global mandate to advocate for health as a human right and health equity, WHO must play a leadership role in preventing and eliminating SEAH within the health sector.
The Letter has been translated into 6 languages: English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic, & Chinese.
We stand in solidarity with the victims of sexual exploitation and abuse everywhere, the majority of whom are women and girls. This letter has been signed by 140+ CSOs from all regions, the majority being from the Global South. Women from the Global South are often cast as victims or collateral damage in humanitarian emergencies. They are, however, a critical part of the solution and their voices must be central in the dialogue on ending sexual exploitation and abuse in the health sector and all sectors.
We will keep the letter open for more signatures until the WHO's Executive Board Meeting 24-27 January 2022, when we will revisit the issue. Please share the Letter with any NGOs who might want to add their signatures.
WGH Statement on Report of the Independent Commission on Allegations Sexual Abuse and Exploitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Protecting not abusing the vulnerable people WHO serves
Today the report was released of the Independent Commission on the review of the allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation made against WHO staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The findings of the Independent Commission are truly shocking: alleged exploitation and abuse by WHO staff of vulnerable women and girls - including nine rapes, countless demands for sex for jobs and even one demand for sex in return for a basin of water. Dozens of women and a girl of 13 became pregnant, had miscarriages and abortions (some forced) and a reported 22 children were born. This grotesque behaviour reported to have been perpetrated by around 22 men working for WHO, has broken the lives of women and girls trying to survive conflict, poverty and disease.
Nothing can be more shameful than well paid men in powerful positions, sent into a humanitarian emergency, using their power and privilege to sexually abuse and exploit women and girls from the communities they were sent to serve. The perpetrators of this sexual abuse and exploitation took advantage of the emergency response to Ebola in North Kivu and Ituri provinces to prey on women and girls who were already extremely vulnerable. The majority of the women and girls abused had little or no education, whereas several of the reported abusers were highly educated men, including medical doctors. This is a dark day for WHO. Particular shame attaches to men who use the humanitarian mandate of the United Nations to commit such rights abuses and bring the UN system into disrepute, in this case undermining the mandate and work of the WHO. WHO staff working on Ebola were killed in attacks in the area and such abuse sullies the memory of their service.
We cannot dismiss this case by saying that a few abusive men may slip through the screening net in emergencies when experts must be deployed fast into areas of social chaos. It is precisely in humanitarian contexts where the host population needs the highest degree of protection. Fixing this means getting inside the minds of men who think this behaviour is OK, who probably do not behave like this at home and have no empathy for the women and girls they abuse. In fact, their behaviour shows complete contempt for the people who have invited them into their country. Coercing impoverished women to trade sex for jobs seems to have been an organisational sub culture and must have been an open secret in the area. The abuse was recorded over a two year period and in the end, was uncovered by the media and not by WHO staff. Fixing this therefore also requires colleagues and managers to see rooting out sexual abuse and exploitation as their duty, not someone else's business.
The DG WHO, Dr Tedros, apologised at the press conference for the harm done and lives ruined. WHO and the UN system had policies and people in place in DRC to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse but they failed. Following the investigation, the hard work must begin of sanctioning the guilty (none of the alleged abusers now work for WHO), strengthening measures to ensure prevention and culture change, and implementing a survivor centred approach, which will include reparations for the women and girls abused in DRC. There is no one magic bullet to solve sexual exploitation and abuse but the presence of women at all levels from leadership down, makes an immediate difference because women rarely commit such abuse. It is noteworthy that of the 2,800 staff on that WHO Ebola programme, 73% were men and men held 77% of leadership roles. If women had been the majority of staff and held the majority of leadership roles, we believe this would have been a more positive story.
The IP report concludes there is no evidence that the DG WHO, Dr Tedros, had any knowledge of this abuse before it appeared in the media. At the press conference Dr Tedros said 'what happened should never happen to anyone, it is inexcusable' and promised support, protection and justice for survivors. We expect that after such a shock to the system Dr Tedros will now deliver on his promise to drive wholesale reform of WHO structures and culture to ensure that such abuse is never repeated. This year, Women in Global Health will co-host a series of town halls with WHO as a platform for open discussion on the drivers of sexual exploitation and abuse and on institutionalising organisational culture change. We will do our part to support WHO in the context of WHO stepping up under the DG's leadership with commitment, resources and iron resolve to drive out sexual exploitation and abuse.
Dr Roopa Dhatt
Executive Director & Co-Founder, Women in Global Health
Without women, we won't end the Pandemic. Women in Global Health at the Global COVID-19 Summit
Source: Healthy Newborn Network
With around 225 million infections and almost 5 million deaths globally, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a devastating impact upon lives, health and livelihoods - from the immediate health and economic impacts to a broader 'shadow pandemic' of lost jobs, increased unpaid work, stress and violence for women. The pandemic struck a deeply unequal world and has widened those inequalities between and within countries. Global leaders must come together in solidarity, recognising that pandemics do not respect national borders, with the highest level of political commitment to end this pandemic for everyone everywhere.
The U.S. government has launched a Global COVID-19 Summit: Ending the Pandemic and Building Back Better (#COVIDSummit) during the UNGA on September 22nd. This is a significant opportunity to dialogue with global leaders and shape future global pandemic preparedness and response. WGH has been invited to contribute.
The COVID-19 pandemic will leave health and economic scars for generations unless we resolve to make this pandemic a radical break with the past. One of the deepest inequalities - gender inequality - if left unaddressed, will continue to undermine efforts to vaccinate the world, end the pandemic, and strengthen health systems. Global health security cannot be built in a fragile foundation of gender inequality. The COVID-19 pandemic is proof of concept for a gender-responsive approach to hewlth systems and lessons learned from the COVID-19 response are an opportunity to address gender inequality in global health security, as well as global health more broadly. Taking a gender responsive approach to health security remains critical to pandemic response and preparedness for future pandemics.
We hope that the summit will not only set ambitious action on vaccine equity (reaching 70% of the world's population) and funding ($10 Billion for Pandemic Preparedness and Response), but will be gender responsive in its approach. So far, the targets for #COVIDSummit have been gender blind - Summit targets attached - with minimal acknowledgement of the role of the health and care workforce and the women who deliver health and care.
As the U.S. Government mobilizes to address the COVID-19 pandemic, we call on all heads of state and government and global health leaders to hardwire gender equity, especially gender equity in the health and care workforce into every aspect of pandemic response and preparedness.
To Vaccinate the World, Save Lives Now, and Build Back Better:
Women will vaccinate the world and women will save lives; without them we will not be able to vaccinate the world and our health systems will collapse. Women comprise 70% of health workers and have made an extraordinary contribution on the frontlines of this pandemic. Women are the experts in the health systems, yet they are clustered into lower paid and unpaid, lower status jobs, frequently in unsafe working conditions and subject to violence and sexual harassment and left out of decision-making roles. All over the world health workers are planning to leave the profession, particularly women who have shouldered the burden of the pandemic at work and unpaid care work at home.
We are calling on the U.S. Government and global leaders to:
1. Provide health workers, most of whom are women, with safe and decent working conditions, including equitable access to vaccines, testing, appropriate PPE designed for female bodies and mental psychosocial support.
2. Recognize the value of women's underpaid and unpaid work in health by including it in the formal labor market and by providing fair pay and living wages for women’s work.
3. Women will Build Back Better. Include women in global health security decision making structures at all levels and public discourse.
4. Adopt a gender-sensitive approach to health security data collection/analysis and response management to for accurate data and accountability,
5. Fund women's movements to unleash capacity to address critical gender issues.
(Source COVID 50/50: A Gender Responsive Approach to Health Security)
Actions we ask from you:
● Ask governments and other global leaders to invest in the health and care workforce,
especially women in health, who will vaccinate the world and save lives! Given the global shortage of health workers and the devastating impact of the pandemic, we cannot afford to lose even one woman from the profession. Without the
health and care workforce, our health systems will collapse
● Ask political leaders to be guided by values of solidarity, transparency and accountability and build a vision based on gender equality and rights to end this pandemic and prevent future health emergencies
● Ask governments to honour commitments made to deliver universal health coverage (UHC) - which must be gender- responsive UHC- by 2030 as the strongest foundation for equality and global health security
● Use WGH #COVID5050 Social Media to Amplify Messaging to Global Actors #COVIDSummit tag key global leaders and organizations (@womeningh)
Women in Global Health are advocating for a new, gender equal social contract for women in the health and care sector. Women want the means - decent work, safety, dignity, fair pay and equal leadership - to do their jobs better and deliver stronger health outcomes for everyone. That new social contract will form the solid foundation for vaccinating the world, saving lives now, building back better and achieving a healthier, more secure future.
Dr. Roopa Dhatt
Executive Director & Co-Founder, Women in Global Health