“We can’t solve this problem if men don’t stand up. They must stand up and tell the men who rape: We do not accept this. If you do not rape but keep silent about rape it means that you accept it.”
Dr. Denis Mukwege is a gynaecologist working in the war-torn region of Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As the chief surgeon of Panzi hospital, he and his colleagues have treated about 40,000 rape victims, developing great expertise in the treatment of serious gynaecological injuries. Despite attacks on his life, Denis Mukwege speaks up tirelessly to raise awareness about the realities of the Congolese war and its grave, lasting consequences for girls and women.
Denis Mukwege was born on 1 March 1955 in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He studied medicine in Burundi and started practicing at the Christian Hospital at Lemera in South Kivu in the Eastern DRC. Shocked by the appalling difficulties of Congolese women in childbirth, he decided to specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology. After completing his studies in France, he returned to South Kivu in 1989.
The Panzi Hospital
In 1996 the hospital at Lemera was completely destroyed in the civil war. With the help of international aid organisations, Dr. Mukwege then founded the Panzi Hospital in the Panzi neighbourhood of Bukavu and became its manager and chief surgeon. Today, the hospital has four departments: obstetrics and gynaecology, paediatrics, surgery, and internal medicine. Panzi Hospital has been serving as a university hospital for the Université Evangelique d´Afrique which started its operations near the hospital in 2011.
The Panzi hospital is best known for its gynaecological skills, including fistula repair. Mukwege is training staff to help with these complications, in collaboration with, among others, the Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa (founded by Catherine Hamlin, Right Livelihood Award 2009) and Harvard Medical School.
From 1999 on, Dr. Mukwege began to see a new level of extremely cruel sexualised violence in the Eastern DRC. He began seeing patients whose entire vagina and rectum had been destroyed with knives or other objects. Since then, Dr. Mukwege and his team at Panzi hospital have treated around 40,000 victims of sexual violence. Dr. Mukwege himself sees 20 patients each day, of which 7-10 suffer from health issues and injuries due to sexual violence. Compared to other conditions treated at the hospital, these cause the biggest psychological and surgical challenges. Dr. Mukwege has reported that it happens that a woman he has treated successfully is raped again and comes back to the hospital, with no more chance for the surgeon to repair her reproductive organs once again.
Dr. Mukwege says: “The perpetrators of these crimes destroy life at its entry point. The women can no longer have children. Often they get infected with AIDS and will spread the disease. Their men are humiliated. So the perpetrators destroy the entire social fabric of their enemies, their communities, their future generations, without even killing the woman. A line has been crossed here, which should have been an absolute taboo. But because those parts of the body are not usually visible, it is not as obvious as other forms of mutilation.”
A big problem in the DRC is that perpetrators enjoy a large degree of impunity, even if they can be identified.
In 2013, Panzi hospital had 398 employees and an annual budget of USD 3.2 million. The hospital has 450 beds, of which 250 are reserved for victims of sexual violence. Patients who cannot afford the care are treated free of charge.
Reintegration and support
Besides medical support, Panzi tries to provide its patients psychological counselling, legal advice, and a perspective for those who cannot go back to their former lives. This work includes DORCAS in Bukavu, a mother-child compound for women who have been released from the hospital and are coached to start an existence with microfinance help.
In addition, Mukwege has set up the Panzi Foundation. It has two full-time employees working out of the Panzi hospital premises, two lawyers and eight volunteer lawyers. The foundation provides assistance and legal clinics for victims of sexual violence around a number of legal topics (heritage, family law, divorce, adoption), psychological counselling, trainings in women’s rights and family living, work against early marriage, health advice workshops, and trainings for community leaders.
Urging the international community to bring an end to the conflict in Eastern DRC
Recognizing that his medical work treats the victims but cannot prevent new violence, Dr. Mukwege has been traveling the world and giving countless interviews to alert the international community about the horrors of the conflict in Eastern DRC.
He says: “In reality, this conflict is not about ethnicity, but it is a territorial conflict about mineral resources. The region of Kivu is rich in coltan, which is needed for mobile phones and laptops. Without the political will the situation will not change. These underlying problems cannot be solved through my work.”
Dr. Mukwege says that the DRC needs a professional, predominantly female police force and an army that protects its people and that excludes those who have destroyed the country. Mukwege is afraid that if the international peacekeepers leave the country before a functional army and police have been established, there will be chaos. He also demands an international criminal tribunal for the DRC like those for Sierra Leone and Yugoslavia.
In a speech at the UN on 25 September 2012, Mukwege called for the UN’s “unanimous condemnation of the rebel groups who are responsible for these acts [of sexualised violence]” and for “concrete actions with regard to member states of the United Nations who support these barbarities from near or afar”. He said: “We do not need more proof, we need action, urgent action to arrest those responsible for these crimes against humanity and to bring them to justice. Justice is not negotiable.”
Assassination attempt and current situation
One month after Mukwege’s speech at the UN, five armed men in civilian clothes slipped into his house in Bukavu while he was away. When he returned in his vehicle, they attacked him, but one of his staff, Joseph Bizimana, distracted the murderers and was killed by them. He saved Mukwege’s life. The local authorities claim they found the murderers, but no trial was held, and none of the witnesses were called to testify. Mukwege decided to escape to Europe with his wife and two daughters.
In his absence, local women’s groups protested against the attack to the authorities, started to collect money for a flight ticket for Mukwege to come home, and promised him they would ensure his security by taking turns to guard him, with groups of 20 women volunteering in shifts around the clock. Moved by their courage and support, Mukwege returned to Bukavu in January 2013. Driving from the airport to the hospital, he was met by cheering crowds. He now lives and works day and night at the Panzi Hospital, continuously accompanied by two bodyguards.
In May 2013, the Panzi Hospital reported that now even small children are becoming victims of sexualised violence: when nine girls not older than five years, were brutally raped in South Kivu, two of them died of their injuries and the others were treated at Panzi hospital for their severe complications.
Among the many awards bestowed upon Dr. Mukwege are the UN Human Rights prize (2008), the Olof Palme Prize (2009) and the King Baudouin International Development Prize (2011). In 2009, the Nigerian newspaper Daily Trust named him “African of the Year”. He is also recipient of the 2013 Human Rights First Award and the 2014 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.