Apr. 27, 2022

The role of CSOs in the prevention, detection, and response to sexual exploitation, abuse,

WHO Director-General's opening remarks. The role of CSOs in the prevention, detection, and response to sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment – 26 April 2022

27 April 2022

Dear colleagues and friends,

Good afternoon, good morning and good evening, and thank you all for joining us for this very important discussion.

As you know, this issue has been a top priority for me since the reports of sexual exploitation and abuse during the Ebola response in DRC first surfaced in 2020.

I’d like to begin by summarizing the actions we have taken since then to respond to the reported incidents, and to make sure we have much stronger mechanisms in place for preventing sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, and for responding when it happens.

Our approach has been based on three core principles: transparency, accountability and ownership by leadership.

First, transparency. That is why I chose to appoint an Independent Commission, that in turn selected an independent external investigator, and to make its findings publicly available – the first time this has been done in the UN system - the first-time there is external scrutiny of a UN organization by an external investigator.

The reason we did this is because if you do the same thing again and again, you will get the same result, not a different result, as Albert Einstein said. That’s why from the start, we took it seriously and did it in a different way. And as you will see from the presentation - a summary from me and the details from Gaya - the result has been different and we hope that this will impact our organization significantly, in a positive way, to help us address the challenges we are facing.

The Commission’s report was clear that WHO needed profound reform of its structures, culture and practices.

In response, we prepared a Management Response Plan to address the specific incidents, as well as the systemic issues.

The Independent Expert Oversight Advisory Committee is monitoring progress in implementing the Management Response Plan, and I also meet every week with the relevant directors and senior managers to monitor progress. All staff were invited to participate in the preparation of the management response plan .

To date, 86% of the planned 190 actions of the Management Response Plan are either completed or in process.

WHO has now handed over the investigations into allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in DRC, as well as cases of possible managerial misconduct, to the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services.

Their investigators are now on the ground in DRC.

We are also continuing to support victims and survivors. So far, we have disbursed about US$ 250 thousand from the Survivor Assistance Fund I set up last year, even in cases where the alleged perpetrator works for another UN agency or partner. As you remember, in the report, there were more than 80 perpetrators, and 23 were from WHO, while the rest were from other agencies and partners.

We will continue to report on the number of investigations related to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, and their status, beyond the DRC events.


The second core principle is accountability.

We are strengthening our accountability functions, starting with the Investigations Service.

We now have a dedicated, qualified team of 15, mostly women, who manage investigations into all forms of misconduct, with priority given to sexual misconduct.

The team is led by the Head of Investigations, who now reports directly to the Executive Board, and who has the independence to investigate anyone, regardless of rank or grade, and examine every complaint made.

The new team is on track to complete investigations into the backlog of SEAH cases by the World Health Assembly, and has set an ambitious 120-day benchmark for completing all new SEAH investigations. Because as you know, justice delayed is justice denied, so that is why we now have a clear 120-day target to complete investigations.

Trust in the system is growing, as evidenced by an increase in the willingness of our personnel to come forward with complaints of sexual misconduct.

We have a long way to go, but as we increase the speed, effectiveness and standard of investigations, accountability increases, and the perception of impunity decreases.

Of course, increased accountability must be supported by increased capacity.

In January of this year, the Executive Board approved our request for  a core budget of US$ 50 million for this biennium.

WHO’s investment in PRSEAH is now the largest across the United Nations.

We are moving quickly. I have set up a dedicated department reporting directly to me headed by a full-time Director, Dr Gaya Gamhewage;

We are placing senior PRSEAH experts in each Regional Director’s Office;

And we are hiring 12 PRSEAH officers in priority countries.

In the remaining 145 country offices, we are identifying and will train focal points. The personnel in our AFRO Region have already begun coming on board over the last few weeks.


The third core principle is ownership by leadership.

While every person who works for WHO has a responsibility to uphold behaviour to prevent, detect and respond to SEAH, leaders have an added responsibility to create the right environment, to take the right measures to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct, and to set the right example.

The Regional Directors and I discuss PRSEAH on a regular basis, to ensure we have an aligned approach across the organization.

Earlier this year, we wrote a joint letter to every member of our workforce, re-affirming our commitment to zero tolerance for SEAH and for inaction against it, and outlining what we expect from each of our personnel, regardless of the type of contract they hold.

All leaders, at all levels, were required to lead discussions with their teams on PRSEAH, using tools developed for the purpose.

Each team was required to select or develop a team objective on PRSEAH, which will be part of their performance evaluation.

This is just a first step on our organization-wide “No Excuse” campaign against SEAH.

We will follow with a series of activities for all personnel, with dedicated activities for all managers and leaders to foster greater ownership.


The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation, and the displacement of large numbers of people, creates a high-risk environment for sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment.

While we do not control the situation or the environment, we are committed to taking all possible measures to address the risks proactively.

Some of the actions we have taken so far include:

Recruiting a PRSEAH coordinator based in Poland;

Embedding PRSEAH measures in our Ukraine response, and tracking activities through the Incident Management System;

Screening everyone deployed in the UN ClearCheck database;

Monitoring the proportion of women deployed to the field to identify bottlenecks – so far women make up 30% of deployments to Ukraine;

Requiring each person deployed to complete mandatory training on SEA, and to read and sign the WHO policy directive;

Collaborating with the UN and Interagency Standing Committee  o engage affected populations on preventing, detecting and reporting of SEA;

Ensuring awareness raising materials are available in local languages, and that everyone knows how to raise a complaint;

And working with UNFPA, UNHCR and others to map the services victims can access.

A further challenge, not just in Ukraine but in many countries, is that services for gender-based violence are extremely weak or missing.

The humanitarian response for Ukraine must allocate resources both for SEAH prevention and also for gender-based violence referral services.

Thank you once again to all of you for your engagement, questions, suggestions and guidance.

We have already come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

We are committed to this path, we are committed to the highest standards, and we are committed to listening and learning.

We want to hear from and engage with all stakeholders, especially civil society organizations, who are closest to the communities we serve.

Thank you once again. We look forward to our discussion today. 

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