Tuesday, October 19, 2021

At least 40 officials at WHO were involved in sexual abuse and harassment last year

There is no evidence any of the officials knew of alleged sexual abuse but none of them was contacted by abuse victims

About 20% of officials at the World Health Organisation (WHO) were implicated in sexual abuse and harassment, resulting in at least 40 cases last year, the agency said on Tuesday.

In a letter addressed to its employees, the WHO said there were 80 cases so far this year but that only four of those had involved the actual sexual assault of a worker. A follow-up letter confirmed that two others had been “placed on leave pending further investigations”.

This disclosure comes after an alleged rape victim, from Uganda, claimed she had been ordered by her public health supervisor to undergo HIV testing with a fellow worker after he put his fingers inside her. WHO has ordered a complaint to be made within 10 days.

The letter, sent to WHO staff on Wednesday, said all cases of sexual abuse were “inexcusable”, regardless of whether the victim or perpetrator was a manager, senior official or a subordinate.

“We need to redouble our efforts to increase our awareness of policies aimed at preventing sexual harassment and protecting our staff,” WHO’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in the letter.

The Guardian believes at least 40 cases of sexual abuse or harassment were addressed in the letter, with a further 20 instances of harassment. The Guardian first reported the allegations of sexual abuse last week.

The letter also added that there were no specific instances of abuse or harassment of girls, as alleged by Jane, the Ugandan woman, in the newspaper report, although it stressed that “girls are also vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse by their colleagues”.

Furthermore, none of the men were involved in “instigating or condoning sexual harassment or abuse”, the letter said. It added that while the WHO knew of these cases, all such allegations were reported to the organisation’s ethics committee.

At a news conference in London on Monday, Tedros insisted that he was “doing everything possible” to improve the organisation’s sexual harassment policies and launch a dedicated campaign on the issue, but he stopped short of promising to enact them.

“We have learnt from our mistakes and we are making sure that we put in place further measures to prevent sexual harassment and any other form of victimisation that may exist,” said Tedros, who was sworn in on 1 January.

He said incidents involving the personal lives of UN staff were a regular occurrence, and added that the recent accusations made by the Ugandan woman were most likely to have involved “a miscommunication or misunderstanding or related issues between a supervisor and a colleague”.

In a statement to the Guardian on Tuesday, Tedros insisted he had “zero tolerance for any form of sexual harassment and abuse of authority or power.”

“This is a basic principle underpinning everything we do, and I made this clear from the start,” he said. “What’s important now is to ensure that each case is thoroughly investigated and the facts are made known to all of the relevant parties to show we are taking these issues very seriously.”

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