WHO appoints official to help prevent sexual abuse by staff

Health

GENEVA (AP) — The World Health Organization has appointed a new official to address the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, following revelations that staffers allegedly traded jobs for sex during a deployment to Congo to fight an Ebola outbreak, the U.N. agency said Friday.

Dr. Gaya Gamhewage, a 20-year WHO veteran, will seek to streamline and improve internal efforts to fight sexual misconduct. The issue has particular implications for an agency whose job is to protect the health of the world’s most vulnerable people.

WHO spokeswoman Marcia Poole confirmed the appointment of Gamhewage, who has years of expertise in health emergencies and has voiced her concerns about sexual exploitation and abuse. The appointment took effect Thursday, and she reports to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“Dr. Gamhewage will work with the accountability departments to strengthen and speed up their work, but she will not have a role in disciplinary actions,” Poole said in an e-mail.

Western diplomats and non-governmental groups have expressed concerns about the way WHO management has responded to news reports that first emerged in October 2020 about sexual abuse involving humanitarian staff in Congo battling an Ebola outbreak that erupted in 2018.

In May, the AP published an investigation documenting that senior WHO management was informed of multiple sex abuse allegations involving at least two of the agency’s doctors during the epidemic.

Tedros was pictured in a photo on the WHO’s website with one of the doctors accused of sexual harassment and misconduct and a senior staffer who received emailed complaints about the alleged abuse. The WHO chief referenced the doctor in a speech that he made to a committee of the WHO’s decision-making body.

Shortly after an initial news report emerged about wider abuses in the humanitarian sector in 2020, Tedros appointed an independent commission to investigate the matter. It is expected to issue its findings in August.

He acknowledged earlier this year that the WHO’s response to sex abuse allegations had been “slow,” and more than 50 countries have asked the agency to be more transparent about how such cases are handled.

Gamhewage, who recently was head of WHO’s learning and capacity development, has been outspoken about the issue. In an internal discussion on sex abuse, she said the “impunity with which we have operated is leading to this.”

In audio recordings obtained by The Associated Press from a WHO town hall meeting in November, she decried a “culture that allows women to be treated in this way not just by armed militants but also by our own colleagues.” That was an apparent reference to armed groups in northeast Congo whose violence hindered the response of WHO and other aid groups against the Ebola outbreak that began in 2018.

“I really want us to be courageous enough to start making changes before this investigation is over, starting with our workplace and going all the way to the field,” she said, alluding to the investigation ordered by Tedros in October. “Training is not going to solve this problem.”

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