Dr. Denis Mukwege is a leader in the movement to highlight the continued problem of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He is the director of Panzi Hospital, in Bukavu in the eastern Congo, where he specializes in the treatment of women who are victims of the sexual violence that since the 1990s has been part of the catastrophic civil wars in the Congo and Rwanda. He is one of the world’s leading experts on how to repair the internal physical damage caused by rape.
The twelve-year war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, centered mainly in eastern Congo, is the widest interstate war in modern African history. It has directly affected the lives of 50 million Congolese people. More people have died in the eastern Congo and adjacent regions than in Iraq, Afghanistan and Darfur combined.
“The conflict has become a war against women,” according to a 2007 CNN report, “and the weapon used to destroy them, their families and whole communities, is rape.” Panzi Hospital is the frontline of this war. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in the last twelve years, and Mukwege has treated 21,000 of them, many of them more than once. He performs up to ten surgeries a day during his eighteen-hour work days. He says that his patients often arrive at the hospital naked, bleeding and with severely damaged reproductive organs.
“You know, they’re in deep pain. But it’s not just physical pain. It’s psychological pain that you can see. Here at the hospital, we’ve seen women who’ve stopped living,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Many of the women he treats are blamed for what happened to them and then shunned because of fears they’ve contracted HIV and because their rapes were so violent they can no longer control their bodily functions.
Panzi Hospital today is providing rape victims with psychosocial support, vocational training, medical and other support for those with HIV, and care for children who were conceived through rape. The hospital has developed strong connections with other medical institutions worldwide.
Mukwege has recently been the recipient of several major awards, including the first African of the Year Prize and the UN Prize in the Field of Human Rights. In 2009 he received the Swedish Olaf Palme Prize for being “an admirable example of what courage, persistency and enduring hope may accomplish for human rights and dignity in times when these values seem the most distant.”
Mukwege hopes to draw the world’s attention to the evil and brutality of rape in his country and the lasting damage to its victims. He and his wife and five children could easily move to Europe, but Mukwege chooses to stay at Panzi Hospital, where he continues to bring medicine, hope and spiritual comfort to the women of the Congo, who have suffered from this violence.