In the height of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s unrest, women and girls found themselves at the mercy of the militiamen who continuously used sexual violence as a tool of war.
What these wars left are tens of thousands of traumatized and mutilated women and girls suffering psychologically as well as physically.
In a bid to give hope and healing to these women, Dr Denis Mukwege founded the Panzi hospital in 1999, in the eastern city of Bukavu. After losing some 35 patients in hospital beds to war, he fled to Bukavu and constructed a hospital made from tents and built a maternity ward with an operating theater. This too was destroyed. In 1998, everything was brought down again. So he had to start all over again in 1999.
Recognizing his passion and resilience, the Time has named Mukwege, a Congolese surgeon, and gynecologist in their list of 100 most influential people in the world.
His facility is a 400-bed hospital, a haven for many women and girls, sitting in a sick environment with an unsupportive government and a militia that is willing to do anything in the name of power and control.
Congo is a land blessed with immense wealth ranging from fertile soil, gold, diamond and precious minerals. At the same time, it is one of the poorest countries on earth with a very weak state, criminals, militia and kleptocratic leaders willing to ‘sell’ the country to acquire even more wealth.
Rape realities in the DRC were confirmed in a 2011 report which revealed that 48 women were raped every hour. Dr Mukwege and his team at Panzi hospital have been providing healing and hope to more than 46,000 victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Some of the rape victims are as young as 6 years old while others are children of rape themselves.
Amidst all the challenges, the son of a Pentecostal pastor guided by his passion and a commitment to justice and an able team, save the communities not only through treatment but also offer other supportive activities. They integrate healing with education and vocational training, safe transitional housing, legal assistance, and social, familial, and community reintegration.
His dedication has been recognized and hailed by many organizations and individuals across the world. In 2014, Mukwege won the Sakharov prize (Europe's top human rights prize) by the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The prize recognized his work in helping victims of rape in the DRC. The Fortune also recognized the surgeon as one of the world’s greatest leaders in their March review. Others include the UN Human Rights Prize, King Baudouin Africa Development Prize, Olof Palme Prize and Clinton Global Citizen Award, among others.
Failed assassination attempt
While his work is hailed by many, others dislike his courage to fight for justice for the rape victims and openly condemning the use of sexual violence by forces fighting to control the vast mineral wealth in DR Congo.
In 2012, the Congolese gynecologist survived an assassination attempt which left his employee (Jeff) dead.
On the night of the attack, Mukwege came home only for his assailants to open the gate and forced him out of his car. At the time, his two daughters had been ordered to sit still in the dining room and not use the phone, while they waited for his arrival. After shooting his employee, the attackers fled using his car but later abandoned it. He survived to tell the ordeal and uses each and every opportunity to treat and talk about the effects of sexual violence.
He finds strength and inspiration from his patients.
"A few years ago, a woman came to us who had been raped and had caught HIV," he told the Guardian. "She arrived with her five children, and we treated her. When she left, she was given $20 to help her on her way. The other day she invited me over. She has bought a piece of land, built a house, paid a dowry for her son's wedding and has $1,000 she wants to spend on a business trip abroad. When you see the determination that can exist within someone whom one has tried to destroy, you want to fight alongside them."
The good doctor continues to treat and to empower women in the DR Congo without tire even when some of his patients are repeat victims of rape who sometimes do not survive the outrageous ordeals which include the use of bottles, sticks, guns, and bullets.
Seeing the victims smile and live again, gives Dr Mukwege the strength to carry on as he waits for intervention from the local government or elsewhere.
Image credit: Elizabeth Blackney for Panzi Hospital and Foundations