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Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, the agency overseeing the global response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, will step down from his post in June 2019, the agency announced yesterday (13 December).
The move comes after the release of an independent panel report, which identified systematic bullying, abuse and sexual harassment under his watch. The report’s authors concluded that there could be “no confidence” in Sidibé’s leadership.
“The UNAIDS Secretariat is in crisis, a crisis which threatens its vital work,” said the report, released on 7 December. Based on interviews and surveys from 60 per cent of UNAIDS staff, it revealed a “vacuum of accountability” underpinned by patriarchy, favouritism, and a “cult of personality” connected to Sidibé.
“If women had control over their bodies and were sexually autonomous then we wouldn’t face a massive epidemic in Africa,”
The report highlighted that, due to the structure of UNAIDS, the executive director faced little accountability. It also found that existing policies to deal with harassment focused on “informal” resolutions, such as calling a hotline — a system the report identified as being ineffective and leaving complainants vulnerable.
“For the recommendations to be genuinely implemented and UNAIDS to regain a culture of dignity and respect, a change in leadership has become necessary,” it concluded.
The UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board responded with an official statement, calling for the immediate implementation of a management response. The response outlines several points of action informed by the report, including improving staff management and compliance, and strengthening oversight of the agency’s activities.
In the statement, Sidibé said he would complete his duties by the end of June 2019 and then step down. “I will work to ensure a smooth transition and pledge to keep my focus on our staff and delivering results for the people we serve,” he said.
Paula Donovan, co-director of New York-based AIDS-Free Worldsays the report’s findings around gender inequality at UNAIDS mirror the same issues hindering progress in the AIDS response, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, where women remain more vulnerable to the virus than men, and are also more likely to die of its health impacts.
“If women had control over their bodies and were sexually autonomous then we wouldn’t face a massive epidemic in Africa,” says Donovan.
Sibongile Tshabalala, CEO of Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, says the agency’s response could set standards for other entities working in the field. “Sidibé must take responsibility (for the culture at the agency) and UNAIDS must show themselves as leaders in the response to sexual harassment.”
However, Tshabalala says the focus should not be removed from the agency’s main task — combatting HIV/AIDS. In the light of global commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to end the epidemic by 2030, she says there is still much to do.
“Our attention has shifted to sexual harassment issues and bullying, while infection rates are increasing,” she says. “We’ve set ourselves these goals and we won’t achieve any of them if we don’t focus on HIV and response leadership.”