Plaudits for the man who mends women
When in October 2018 Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist and specialist in reconstructive surgery, won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2018, the world’s media celebrated the extraordinary life of a doctor often referred to as “the man who mends women.” The moniker is a recognition of the years he has spent fixing the bodies of sexually assaulted women and girls in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Dr. Mukwege and Nadia Murad, an Iraqi human rights activist, were awarded the peace prize for “their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflicts.”
“Denis Mukwege is the helper who has devoted his life to defending these victims, while Nadia Murad is the witness who tells of the abuses perpetrated against herself and others,” stated the Nobel Foundation.
Dr. Mukwege, a renowned women’s rights advocate, runs the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, South Kivu, in the DRC. The hospital cares for women wounded by rape and other assaults.
The DRC has been engulfed in deadly conflicts for decades. UN Women, the United Nations agency for gender equality and women’s empowerment, estimates the number of women raped in the country to be more than a million during that time. Dr. Mukwege has treated 45,000 of those rape victims.
In an internationally acclaimed documentary on his work titled The Man Who Mends Women: The Wrath of Hippocrates, released in 2015, Dr. Mukwege summed up the situation of women in his country: “In conflict zones, battles take place on women’s bodies.”
In his autobiography Plaidoyer pour la vie (Plea for Life), he writes: “When war is declared, when there is no law, no religion, it is the women and children who suffer.”
One of the women he has operated on said, “I have had nine surgeries. And when the doctor [Mukwege] took care of me right from the first surgery, I knew no one else in this world could have done the same. He didn’t know what I went through, but he went out of his way to give me back my life. I can love myself again and carry on with life because of him.”
The Nobel laureate often recounts the story of the first victim he operated on, in 1999, and how he decided from then on to devote his life to mending women’s bodies.
“They brought me a woman who had been raped by several men in uniform,” said Dr. Mukwege. “She hadn’t just been raped, they had also shot at her genitals. I had never seen anything like it.… I thought it must be an exceptional case, the act of a madman. I couldn’t imagine that it would become the work I do for probably the rest of my life.”
His dedication to women’s rights was acknowledged in 2014 by the European Parliament when he was awarded the Sakharov Prize, which honours people who dedicate their lives to human rights and freedom of thought.
On receiving the award, he warned, “This prize won’t have any significance to the female victims of sexual violence if you won’t join us in our quest for peace, justice and democracy.” He was calling on politicians, civil society and citizens to join the fight against sexual violence.
The Sakharov Prize was not his first award. He is the recipient of over two dozen honours, including the Olof Palme Prize in January 2008 and the Seoul Peace Prize in September 2016.
“Dr. Denis Mukwege has been a fearless champion for the rights of women caught up in armed conflict who have suffered rape, exploitation and other horrific abuses,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres remarked when news broke of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate of 2018.
African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat praised the Nobel Foundation for recognizing Dr. Mukwege’s “immense contribution to restoring the dignity of countless women victims of senseless and insidious acts of violence committed in the context of the multiple conflicts plaguing the eastern part of the DRC.”
An assassination attempt on the doctor failed in 2012, but his driver was killed.
“Despite regular threats to his life, he made the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo a haven from mistreatment,” Mr. Guterres noted in his Nobel Prize congratulatory message.
Even in the face of mortal danger, Dr. Mukwege is not giving up. “I identified every woman raped with my wife, every mother raped with my own mother and every child raped with my own children,” he said. “How can we keep silent?”