From Latin America to Asia, the international NGO SOS Children's Villages has covered up many cases of sexual violence and corruption since the 1980s, reveals a clear report published on Wednesday. In an interview with AFP, its director general Ingrid Johansen evoked a document "difficult to read for our staff" but testifying to a desire for "transparency extensive".
Upon her arrival in 2021 at the head of the organization, the Scandinavian leader set out to "repair the mistakes of the past" and scramble to regain the trust of donors. In this "introspection" process, an independent audit was entrusted to a team led by Willy Mutunga, a former Chief Justice of Kenya.
Objective: to shed light on a series of cases of abuse that have arisen within the structure, founded in 1949 in Austria to help orphans and children who do not receive adequate care from their families. With 2.5 million minors and their relatives registered in 137 countries and territories in 2022, SOS Children's Village bills itself as "the world's largest organization" of its kind.
'Culture of fear'
The 10-member commission of inquiry visited a dozen countries, consulted thousands of archival documents and conducted 188 interviews with alleged victims, former officials and current supervisors. Over the course of a 262-page report, a damning list emerges.
We confirm serious allegations of abuse" committed against minors in several countries, reads the text seen by AFP. "Many cases of child pregnancies" resulting from rape have been documented, with girls having undergone "forced abortions" without the "consent of the families".
In Nepal, a generous donor was taken into a centre, "against the rules", and abused children between 2010 and 2014. One of them was even sent to Austria to visit him. Scandals have been silenced, whistleblowers intimidated, evidence destroyed and authorities kept in the dark. In Panama, where the commission notes a "culture of fear", one victim was forced to retract before being placed in solitary confinement and then having to leave the premises. In general, the report deplores "a desire to protect the organization" to the detriment of the interests of the child.
Children torn from their families
In addition to Nepal and Panama, investigators confirmed significant deficiencies in Cambodia, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Syria. In this country, SOS Children's Villages, one of the few NGOs left behind during the war, received from 2015 children forcibly separated from their families belonging to the opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. "They are now reunited with their loved ones and none of them are part of our programmes anymore," says Johansen.
More recently, the Russian branch of the NGO was suspended after the revelation in the press of accusations of taking care of Ukrainian children probably "deported" by Moscow. "As this is a serious allegation, the measure will remain in place until we are 100% sure that everything is in order," says the director.
Beyond cases of abuse, the document details a "significant number" of embezzlement, abuse of power, irregularities in the awarding of contracts sometimes involving "millions of dollars". SOS Children's Villages shows its willingness to overhaul everything at the global level: a post of defender of rights has been created, more than half of the members of the management have been replaced and the reception centres have been strengthened. Around 500 victims received individual, psychological, logistical or financial support. But "despite numerous reform initiatives, the transformation has not been fully implemented," the report laments, with some "standards of the old structure hindering the work of the new leadership."