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After Claims of Sexual Abuse, Oxfam Suspends 2 Workers in Africa

Oxfam has suspended two staff members over accusations of sexual misconduct in the Democratic Republic of Congo in recent years, the British charity said on Friday, months after commissioning a broader investigation into abuse claims in the central African nation.

The suspensions were the latest troubles for Oxfam, whose funding from the British government was halted for nearly three years after a sexual exploitation scandal in Haiti in early 2018. The charity was allowed to apply again for that assistance only a few weeks ago.

“We have suspended two members of Oxfam staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of an ongoing external investigation, which we set up last November, into allegations of abuses of power, including bullying and sexual misconduct,” the charity said in a statement on Friday.

The accusations against Oxfam and other aid workers in Congo come amid a broader examination of accusations of sexual abuse by humanitarian aid workers and United Nations peacekeepers working with some of the world’s most vulnerable people in war zones and humanitarian emergencies.

In November, Oxfam commissioned an independent inquiry into the conduct of its workers in Congo after dozens of women voiced accusations of sexual abuse. The United Nations and other aid agencies have begun similar investigations into their workers.

Oxfam’s investigation came after a report last September in The New Humanitarian, a nonprofit news organization based in Geneva, about the conduct of aid workers in Congo during the Ebola crisis from 2018 to 2020. It cited accusations from more than 50 women who said they had been sexually abused by workers at several leading charities, including Oxfam.

The accusations focus on multiple incidents in eastern Congo at a time when several international aid groups were working in the region. The report mentioned staff members of several other aid groups and agencies.

Oxfam said that the external investigation that began in November was into wider accusations.

The charity said in its statement that it was “acutely aware of our duty to survivors, including in supporting them to speak out safely,” and added, “We are working hard to conclude the investigation fairly, safely and effectively.” 

In February 2018, the Haitian government suspended the British branch of Oxfam from working in the country after an investigation found that there had been sexual misconduct by employees and that aid workers had abused their power and paid women for sex.

A senior executive at Oxfam also stepped down that month when it was revealed that an official in charge of operations in Chad had been allowed to remain with the charity at a time when similar claims were made there against aid workers. That official moved on to Haiti, where there were accusations of continued sexual abuse.

Oxfam was one of numerous international aid groups that worked in Haiti after a devastating earthquake struck the country in January 2010, killing more than 200,000 people, according to Haitian government estimates. The group has faced scrutiny in the decade since the disaster.

A cholera outbreak that later killed thousands of Haitians was traced to United Nations peacekeeping troops sent in after the quake. And in recent years staff members of U.N. peacekeeping missions and some of its aid agencies have been accused of sexual abuse in the Central African Republic, Congo and Haiti.

The issues have forced a re-examining of safeguarding measures within the organization. Last month, António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, released an annual report on the global body’s response to sexual exploitation and abuse.

That report acknowledged the most recent accusations implicating United Nations workers involved in the Ebola response, and said that an independent commission and other bodies were “investigating these wrongs.”

“I am deeply concerned that such egregious allegations continue to implicate United Nations personnel and pledge that we will redouble and spare no efforts to address the underlying factors that harm those whom we seek to assist,” Mr. Guterres said in the report.

The U.N. report also noted that the coronavirus pandemic had “deepened existing inequalities and exposed those in vulnerable situations to increased risks of sexual exploitation and abuse.”

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