Médecins Sans Frontières apologises after sexual misconduct allegations emerge

It has been claimed on the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire show that some of the aid charity's staff have sexually exploited women in Africa

-This story has been clarified. Please see last paragraph

The aid charity Médecins Sans Frontières has apologised amid claims that some of its staff sexually exploited women in Africa, including that staff had boasted about trading medicine for sex during the Ebola crisis.

The Charity Commission said it had opened a compliance case into MSF UK and requested a meeting with the charity to "assess the regulatory concerns".

The BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show reported today that female former employees of the charity said the practice of employing local women as sex workers was "widespread" among male staff working in Africa.

One woman told the BBC that a senior member of staff had bragged about how easy it was to persuade young women in Liberia who had lost their parents to the Ebola crisis to perform sexual acts in return for medication. The BBC said it had not been able to verify this allegation.

Senior members of staff had brought young women back to MSF accommodation, and it was implicit that they were there for sex, the whistleblowers said.

Another said there was an abuse of power that meant people felt unable to challenge senior members of staff, and there was a feeling that "certain predatory men were seen as too big to fail", the BBC said.

One former staff member alleged she had been sexually harassed by male staff and, when she reported the behaviour, she was offered mediation and told she would be fired "if she did not sort things out with her colleague", the BBC said.

An MSF spokeswoman said: "We do not tolerate abuse, harassment or exploitation within MSF. We are sorry for any instances where people have been subjected to harassment or abuse or have otherwise been mistreated and/or felt that it was not adequately dealt with.

"We know that MSF is not immune to these issues and we take any reports seriously. We have mechanisms in place to prevent, detect and address staff misconduct."

She said the charity had looked into the claims put to it by the BBC, but the lack of detail had made it difficult to confirm them, and she urged anyone with concerns to report them through the charity’s confidential whistleblowing scheme.

"We are deeply saddened that in this case the people the BBC has spoken to do not feel able to come forward," she said.

"While we have reporting mechanisms in place where complaints can be made, we know we need to do more to ensure that they are known, trusted and used by the people who need them."

She said under-reporting was a key challenge for MSF, as it was for wider society. The charity, she said, would continue to improve its reporting mechanisms so that people would feel safe to report abuse and to ensure that all staff understood the importance of responsible behaviour.

She said a number of people had previously been sanctioned for misconduct, which included dismissal.

"We welcome the current scrutiny as this is what enables change in and beyond MSF," said the spokeswoman. "The more people talk about these issues, the more it discourages unacceptable behaviour and encourages individuals to report it."

A Charity Commission spokeswoman said MSF UK had submitted multiple serious-incident reports about safeguarding matters connected to the charity and related organisations in recent years and had opened a regulatory compliance case before the allegations came to light on the Victoria Derbyshire show.

"We have requested a meeting with the charity so that we can further assess the regulatory concerns and consider our next steps," she said.

A total of 80 serious safeguarding incidents were reported to the Charity Commission in the two months after the news broke in February that Oxfam workers had employed beneficiaries as sex workers in the wake of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, according to the Department for International Development.

The original story did not make clear that reports of trading medication for sex had not been verified by the BBC

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