INTERVIEW: A fate shaped by injustice – one man’s mission to help the women of DR Congo

Denis Mukwege, Director and Founder of Panzi General Referral Hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

18 March 2016 – When a woman arrived at his hospital about 17 years ago with her genitals destroyed by gunshots, Dr. Denis Mukwege ruled it an isolated incident.

“But after six months, I realized many other patients kept coming with almost the same story: ‘I was raped, and then they pierced me with a bayonet,’ ‘I was raped, and then they burned rubber on my genitals,’” the Congolese gynaecologist told the UN News Centre recently.

Genital mutilation, he discovered, was being used as a weapon of war in the deadly conflict of the late 1990s between various armed groups and the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This shocking discovery changed the course of Dr. Mukwege’s career.

“We just happened to stumble upon this situation,” he said, adding that it led him to make an immediate decision – to devote himself to reconstructive surgery for female victims of sexual violence. It was a path that would eventually put his life, and those of his loved ones, in danger.

Now, some 17 years later, Dr. Mukwege’s unwavering commitment has led him to treat more than 40,000 victims at his hospital in Panzi, a district of Bukavu, his hometown in the province of South Kivu, in the eastern DRC.

Dubbed by the press as “the man who mends women,” Dr. Mukwege has gained international recognition for his work and earned many prestigious distinctions, including the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights in 2008 and the Sakharov prize in 2014. At 59, he has also been shortlisted several times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In February, as a sign of his appreciation for Dr. Mukwege’s fight to end sexual violence against women, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made time during a brief visit to the DRC to hold a private meeting with him.

On the path to healing

There was an earlier tragedy that also steered Dr. Mukwege on his path. He was born in 1955 in Bukavu to a Pentecostal family of nine children. As a teenager, he used to follow his father, a pastor, while on his daily visits.

One day, his father was called to the bedside of a sick child.

“After praying, he began to pack up and was about to leave,” recalled Dr. Mukwege. “But I told him, ‘No Daddy! When I’m sick, you pray, but you also give me medicine.’”

His father replied that he was not a doctor.

“Suddenly, it was like an eye-opener, and I told myself, I want to be a doctor to do what my father didn’t.”

The child eventually died of his illness.

The women we treat are only the tip of the iceberg because many of them are afraid to say they have been raped for fear of being rejected by their husbands.

Years later, after graduating from medical school in Burundi, Dr. Mukwege returned to South Kivu and started his career as a paediatrician at the Lemera Hospital, about 100 kilometres away from Bukavu.

While at the hospital, he was shocked to discover the extent of the pain of women who, in the absence of proper care, often suffered serious genital lesions after giving birth. He decided to go back to school to study gynaecology and obstetrics in France, before returning to Lemera in the late 1980s.

With the outbreak of the First Congo War in what was then known as Zaire in 1996 and the spreading of fighting to South Kivu, Dr. Mukwege found himself on the shifting frontlines.

One day he arrived at the Lemera Hospital only to find out that all of his patients had been murdered. It took him a long time to recover from this experience.

“It took me two years before I felt I could be useful again,” he said. “People can’t imagine how much we feel responsible for our patients. And then, someone comes and kills them in their beds!”

Dr. Mukwege himself was not immune to the violence. While he was transporting a patient who needed to be evacuated to Sweden, his car came under fire. He and the other passengers survived the shooting unharmed.

In the wake of these incidents, feeling unable to continue working at Lemera Hospital, Dr. Mukwege returned to his hometown of Bukavu, where he founded the Panzi Hospital in 1999. This was shortly before his discovery of the extent of sexual violence in eastern DRC.

Sexual violence as a weapon of war

A report by the Secretary-General that was issued in March 2015 showed that the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war is an ongoing reality in the DRC.

It found that, from January to September 2014, 11,769 cases of sexual and gender-based violence were recorded by the UN in the DRC provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, Orientale, Katanga and Maniema – 39 per cent of which were considered to be directly related to the dynamics of conflict, perpetrated by armed individuals.

“As in 2013, North Kivu and Orientale remain the provinces most affected by conflict-related sexual violence,” the report stated, adding that 69 per cent of all confirmed cases of conflict-related sexual violence were perpetrated by armed groups and the remaining 31 per cent by members of Government security forces.

According to Dr. Mukwege, it is very difficult to obtain reliable data on the phenomenon, due to the fact that sexual violence was, and still is, a taboo for the victims.

“The women we treat are only the tip of the iceberg because many of them are afraid to say they have been raped for fear of being rejected by their husbands,” he said, adding that, although the fighting has now abated in the eastern DRC, the issue of sexual violence by armed groups there is still a reality.

The taboo surrounding rape victims is deeply rooted in Congolese society, and perpetrators, some of whom live alongside their victims, are rarely held accountable.

“The woman, she knows the guy who lives across the street. She sees him every morning and, unfortunately, he’s never had to face the consequences for his actions,” Dr. Mukwege noted.

Dr. Denis Mukwege talks about as a weapon of war, which has destroyed communities (March 2011). Credit: OHCHR

Over the years, he has developed what he refers to as a “holistic” approach to treating victims, one that involves taking into account both the surgical and psychological dimensions of their suffering, as well as issues concerning rehabilitation and justice.

“We first started by limiting ourselves to pure medical care, but we quickly realized that after being treated, the women refused to eat, drink, live and were dying from a form of suicide,” he said.

As a result, the hospital hired a team of psychologists and social workers to work with patients before they go through reconstructive surgery. But the treatment extends beyond medical care.

In order for patients to be able to reintegrate into their communities and live with a degree of independence, Dr. Mukwege and his team also work in collaboration with non-governmental organizations that provide victims with economic support.

“We’ve found that when they are doing well physically, when they feel strong enough psychologically and when they are economically independent, that’s when women start seeking justice,” said Dr. Mukwege, who created, for that purpose, a legal clinic to help women regain their rights and take the perpetrators to court.

However, his willingness to break the silence surrounding sexual violence against women in eastern DRC has made him the target of many death threats. He has survived several assassination attempts, including a shooting at his private consultation office in Bukavu – fortunately, he had not been present at the time.

“What am I doing to escape these? Not much,” he said. “Today, I am protected by MONUSCO [the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC], which we’re grateful for at the hospital, especially given some of my other staff members have also been kidnapped, tortured and raped.”

While the presence of UN peacekeepers makes him and his staff feel safer, Dr. Mukwege admits that the conditions in which he has to perform his daily work in Bukavu are challenging.

Ensuring voices are heard, lives honoured

Last September, the Congolese authorities initially prohibited the release of a documentary film centred on his professional journey and the Panzi Hospital.

“This is a film that shows the strength of Congolese women, their ability to support themselves, their resilience,” said Dr. Mukwege, adding that he was dumbfounded by the authorities’ censorship. “Women have a much more powerful inner strength than those who are trying to destroy them.”

Directed by Thierry Michel and Colette Braeckman, ‘The Man Who Mends Women – The Wrath of Hippocrates’ was screened at UN Headquarters in New York in October 2015, in the presence of Dr. Mukwege. A few days earlier, according to press reports, the Congolese Government announced it had lifted its ban on the movie.

Women have a much more powerful inner strength than those who are trying to destroy them.

“We can’t make progress unless we recognize first that there is a problem. When one remains in the culture of denial, it is extremely dangerous, because it is a way to let women suffer on their own,” he said.

There have been steps in the right direction, he noted. “We have more and more women who not only speak, but also take a stand and become women’s rights activists,” he said. Also, in July 2014, the country’s President, Joseph Kabila, appointed an adviser on conflict-related sexual violence and child recruitment – a sign that the country is slowly waking up to the issue of sexual violence in conflict, according to observers.

But, according to ‘the man who mends women,’ much remains to be done before claiming victory, and the international community must redouble its efforts in the fight against conflict-related sexual violence. He also stressed that such violence cannot be considered as just a women’s issue or a feminist issue.

“What is our humanity worth if people can sell other people to make sexual use of them, to turn them into sex slaves?” Dr. Mukwege asked. “Our society has to say stop and draw a line in the sand: some acts are such that society as a whole must oppose them.”

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