It is a document “difficult to read for our staff”, but testifying to a desire for “extensive transparency”, explains the general manager of SOS Children’s Villages. From Latin America to Asia, the international NGO has covered up numerous cases of sexual violence and corruption since the 1980s.
Upon her arrival in 2021 at the head of the organization, the Scandinavian leader Ingrid Johansen undertook to “repair the mistakes of the past” and to struggle to regain the confidence of donors. In this process of “introspection”, an independent audit was entrusted to a team led by Willy Mutunga, a former president of the Supreme Court of Kenya. Objective: to shed light on a series of cases of abuse that emerged within the structure, founded in 1949 in Austria to help orphans and children who do not benefit from adequate care by their families.
With 2.5 million minors and their relatives registered in 137 countries and territories in 2022, SOS Children’s Village presents itself as “the largest global organization” of this type.
A damning list
The 10-member commission of inquiry visited a dozen countries, consulted thousands of archival documents and conducted 188 interviews with victims, former officials and current supervisors. Over the course of a 262-page report, a damning list emerges.
“We confirm serious allegations of violence” committed against minors in several countries, can we read in this text consulted by AFP. “Many cases of child pregnancies” resulting in particular from rape have been documented, young girls having undergone “forced abortions” without the “consent of the families being established”. In Nepal, a generous donor was welcomed into a center, “against the rules”, and committed sexual assaults on children between 2010 and 2014. One of them was even sent to Austria to 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”, a victim was forced to recant before being placed in solitary confinement and then having to leave the scene. In general, the report deplores “a desire to protect the organization” to the detriment of the interests of the child.
Children forcibly taken from their families
In addition to Nepal and Panama, investigators confirmed significant failures in Cambodia, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Syria. In this country, SOS Children’s Villages, one of the few NGOs that remained on site during the war, received from 2015 children forcibly separated from their families belonging to the opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “They are now reunited with their loved ones and none of them are any longer part of our programs,” says Ingrid 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,” said the director.
Abuse of power and embezzlement
Beyond the cases of mistreatment, 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 desire to put everything back on a 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 centers have been reinforced.
Around 500 victims benefited from individualized psychological, logistical or financial support. But “despite numerous reform initiatives, the transformation has not been fully implemented”, deplores the report, certain “norms of the old structure hindering the work of the new management”.