Written by Olga Krutova, CNN
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Red Cross have confirmed that Nepalese workers working on Ebola surveillance in Guinea were reportedly involved in sexual abuse of women and girls.
More than 500 women and girls interviewed in the region said that Nepalese health workers had forced sex on them at different times between July and September, according to testimony collected and released by advocacy group STAND (Survivors International.
“We have noted the allegations regarding Nepalese workers in Guinea who exploited and abused girls and women during the Ebola response, and we are undertaking an immediate and thorough investigation,” the UN health agency told CNN in a statement.
The Red Cross said that the allegations were “difficult to verify and to date, they are unconfirmed. The alleged incidents would be a source of real offense to any girl or woman who was harmed or abused.”
The women interviewed by STAND included survivors and their families who fled communities in late 2014 after having fled the epidemic’s first wave.
“They were exploited because they were vulnerable, violated and lacked the strength to speak out,” said Stand Executive Director Steve Acheson.
“The men working in Ebola-affected countries had no regard for the well-being of the girls and women they were charged with protecting. I believe it is common knowledge that some in the medical community, including the elite, exploit women and girls.”
The women reported that the men sent the women with them, and often demanded gifts or money for sexual favors. In some cases, sexual acts were also used as bribery.
WHO was reportedly made aware of the allegations three weeks ago and added that it was working with the Nepalese government to “identify, investigate and appropriately discipline any official found to have violated the principles of conduct expected of them as part of the WHO Ebola response.”
Medical response is not without its controversies
The allegations are the latest of several reports of sexual exploitation in the medical response to Ebola.
The Assata Center for Human Rights released documents in October 2015 showing that US medical workers in Liberia had sexually exploited and abused patients in August and September that year.
The Center said that the workers, two Army nurses and a paramedic in both groups, were “communicating through channels to obtain confidential information on female Ebola survivors, capturing the victims’ physiological details, birthdates, location, family information, and any potential identifiers, and using this information to create profiles of their sexual characteristics and mental health status.”
The soldiers also “left the women and girls’ homes in cities without alerting the local community members, using their military tactics to reach their destination without losing credibility with the local population,” according to the Assata Center’s research.
CNN reported in June that sexual relations between health workers and patients, officials and civilians at the outbreak’s peak were among the reasons medical personnel have sought to maintain confidentiality while entering at least three wards of the Ebola treatment center in Sierra Leone’s Kailahun, a late act of heroism, according to UN and Sierra Leonean workers, who were dismissed from the ward by the remote management.
However, the mother of one of the boy patients reported that workers from WHO, the charity International Medical Corps and the Red Cross were in fact raping the boys, and pregnant girls, whenever they got pregnant in their isolated section of the ward.
According to Sierra Leone’s health ministry, the zero tolerance rule for sexual acts in the Ebola response was observed, with offenders fired, summarily suspended and barred from working in areas again facing Ebola.
Ebola outbreak could be over, WHO says
The news of the abuse comes as WHO said late last week that West Africa could be free of Ebola in the “coming weeks” — a milestone it declared “not so long ago” — as no new cases of the virus have been reported in the last 14 days.
The World Health Organization said it is hard to predict when the outbreak will be brought under control, but experts say that if it is not brought to an end by year-end, the risks of contagion from the current crisis will grow.
At the height of the worst Ebola outbreak ever recorded in 2014, the virus killed 11,300 people across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.