PORTRAIT: Dr. Denis Mukwege, the man who repairs women in eastern DRC


An article from the United Nations News Centre

In 1999, when a woman appeared at his hospital with genital destroyed by gun shots, the Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege first believed it was an isolated case. “But after about six months, I realized that the story was repeated in other patients that were almost identical: ‘I was raped, and then they pierced me with a bayonet! I was raped, and then they burned rubber on my genitals!'” Dr. Mukwege recalled in a recent interview with the UN Radio and the UN News Centre .

Dr. Denis Mukwege, director and founder of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo, and winner of the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights. UN Photo / Eskinder Debebe

The practice he had just discovered, born of the bloody conflict between the government at that time and the armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), would profoundly mark the rest of his career: the use of the destruction of the female genitalia as a weapon of war.

“This situation simply fell on us,” said Dr. Mukwege to explain the decision he took then to dedicate his professional life to reconstructive surgery for women victims of sexual violence – a decision that would put his life and that of his family in danger.

Sixteen years later, the commitment of Dr. Mukwege has allowed him to treat more than 40,000 victims in the hospital that he himself founded in the district of Panzi in Bukavu, his hometown in the South region Kivu, eastern DRC.

The man that the press has dubbed ‘the man who repairs women’ has also gained international recognition for his work, which has earned him numerous awards, including the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights in 2008 and the Sakharov prize in 2014. Now 59 years old, he has been approached several times for the Nobel peace prize.

This exceptional career, Dr. Mukwege says, is primarily the result of the injustices he faced, starting with his early decision to become a doctor.

Denis Mukwege was born in 1955 in Bukavu in a Pentecostal family of nine children. As a teenager, he used to accompany his father, a pastor, in his daily rounds. One day his father was called to the bedside of a sick child.

“After praying, his father began to pack up and prepare to leave,” reminisced Dr. Mukwege. “But I told him, ‘No Daddy! When I am sick, you pray, but you also give me medicine. ‘ ”

In response, his father remarked that he was not a doctor.

“At that time, there was like a click in my head and I told myself: I want to be a doctor to do what my father could not.”

The child, meanwhile, finally succumbed to his illness.

Years later, after completing medical school in Burundi, Dr Mukwege returned to South Kivu to start his career in Lemera Hospital, a hundred kilometers from Bukavu, as a pediatrician.

During this experience, he was shocked by the discovery of the pain of women who, in the absence of proper care, regularly suffered serious genital lesions after giving birth. He decided to leave to study gynecology and obstetrics in France before returning to Lemera in the late 1980s.

The outbreak of war in the Congo DRC (then Zaire) in 1996 would again confront Dr. Mukwege with injustice. South Kivu found himself in the front line of fighting.

One day, arriving at the hospital, Dr. Mukwege found all its patients had been murdered, a drama from which he took a long time to recover.

“It took me two years before I felt I could be useful again. People do not imagine how one feels responsible for the sick. And then someone comes and kills them in their bed!”

At the same time, Dr. Mukwege himself ws nearly killed in an attack. While transporting a patient to evacuate to Sweden, his car was riddled with bullet shots. Fortunately, he and other passengers were not affected.

Feeling unable to continue working in Lemera, Dr. Mukwege returned to Bukavu, where he founded the Panzi hospital in 1999, shortly before the discovery of the extent of sexual violence in eastern DRC.

A report published in June 2002 by the NGO Human Rights Watch echoed the observations made on the ground by Dr. Mukwege.

Entitled ‘The War Within the War: Sexual violence against women and girls in eastern Congo’, this study is based on research conducted in the provinces of North and South Kivu, then controlled since 1998 by Rwandan Hutu armed groups and Burundian rebels fighting against the government of President Laurent-Désiré Kabila (1997 – 2001), the Rwandan army and the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD, a Congolese rebel group). According to the report, sexual violence was used frequently and sometimes systematically as a weapon of war by most forces involved in the conflict from the late 1990s.

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Question related to this article:

Protecting women and girls against violence, Is progress being made?

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In the one town of Shabunda, “the governor of South Kivu estimated 2,500 to 3,000 women and girls were raped between late 1999 and mid-2001,” according to the report, which did not report other data on a regional basis.

Another Human Rights Watch report, dated June 2014, indicated that tens of thousands have been raped or subjected to other forms of sexual violence in eastern DRC over the past two decades. Entitled ‘Democratic Republic of Congo: End impunity for sexual violence’, although the study could not determine theexact number of victims.

According to Dr. Mukwege, one of the difficulties in obtaining detailed data is the fact that sexual violence was and is still a taboo subject for the victims, who are often rejected by their own community.

“The women we care for represent only the tip of the iceberg because many of them are afraid to say they have been raped for fear of being repudiated by their husbands,” he said, adding that although the fighting has now abated in eastern DRC, the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war by armed groups is still relevant.

This taboo is so deeply rooted in Congolese society that the perpetrators, some of whom live near their victims, often enjoy relative impunity. “The woman sees the perpetrtor who lives across the street every morning, but unfortunately he is never made to answer for his actions,” lamented Dr. Mukwege.

Over the years, he has developed an original approach, which he calls “holistic”, to treat victims, taking into account the dimensions of both surgical and psychological, but also the issues of rehabilitation and justice.

“At first we gave only medical care, but we quickly realized that after being treated, the women refused to eat, drink, live and therefore, would also die of some form of suicide,” he said.

The hospital is staffed by a team of psychologists and social workers who work with patients before the reconstructive surgeries.

Once treated, the patients are able to reintegrate into their community while Dr. Mukwege and his team work in collaboration with NGOs that help victims to go to the hospital and provides economic support at their return.

“We found that when they are doing well both physically and psychologically they feel strong enough to be autonomous. At that point the women begin to seek justice” said Dr. Mukwege, who created for this purpose a legal clinic to help women regain their rights and prosecute in court.

His willingness to break the silence surrounding sexual violence against women in eastern DRC, however, brought pressures and threats. He was the target of several failed assassination attempts, one in the office where he made private consultations to patients in Bukavu, which was riddled with bullets. Fortunately, Dr. Mukwege was not present during the attack.

“What am I doing to escape? Not much. Today I have the protection of MONUSCO [Mission to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo], which we appreciate in the hospital, because some members of my staff have also also been kidnapped, tortured and raped, “he said.

Although he feels reassured by the presence of MONUSCO, Dr. Mukwege has admitted that his daily work in Bukavu is performed in difficult conditions and that the silence on sexual violence in DRC is still a reality.

Last September, the Congolese authorities in particular prohibits the dissemination in the country of a documentary film about his background and activities of the Panzi Hospital.

“This is a film that shows the strength of Congolese women, their resilience. […] Women have a much more powerful inner strength than those who would destroy them, “said Dr. Mukwege, expressing his incomprehension at the censorship of the film.

Directed by Thierry Michel and Colette Braeckman, ‘The man who repairs the women – the wrath of Hippocrates’ was screened October 22, 2015 at UN headquarters in New York, in the presence of Dr. Mukwege. A few days earlier, according to press reports, the Congolese government announced the lifting of the decision banning the film in the DRC.

“We can not make progress unless we recognize first that there is a problem. Remaining in the culture of denial is extremely dangerous because it leaves the women to suffer”, he said.

According to Dr. Mukwege, significant progress has been made over the last 15 years. “We have more and more women who not only speak, but who also take a stand and become activists for women’s rights,” he praised.

In July 2014, the President of the DRC, Joseph Kabila, has appointed a Special Adviser in the fight against sexual violence and child recruitment, Jeannine Mabunda Lioko Mudiayi, a sign that attitudes are changing in the country.

The man who repairs women maintains, however, that much remains to be done before we can claim victory. To achieve this, the international community must redouble its efforts to fight against sexual violence related to conflict. Dr. Mukwege calls upon the whole society to consider this matter and not to leave it under the sole prism of women and feminism.

“What is the value of our humanity if people can afford to sell other people to make sexual use, sex slaves,” he said. “Our society must say no and set a red line: if certain acts are committed, it is the entire society that must oppose it.”

(Thank you to Janet Hudgins, the CPNN reporter for this article.)