Eliminating Universal Suffering

Eliminating Universal Suffering

Dr. Denis Mukwege is a gynecologist and women’s rights advocate from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) who has dedicated his life to helping the survivors of sexualized violence in his war-torn country and worldwide. Dr. Mukwege provides physical, psychological, and legal support to its victims while also seeking to bring the perpetrators to justice and ban the use of rape as a weapon of war on a global level. To advance these efforts, he founded the Panzi Hospital and Foundation and co-founded the Global Survivors Fund (GSF). In 2017, Dr. Mukwege was named Aurora Humanitarian, and in 2018, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

For Denis Mukwege, the calling to serve humanity runs in the family. His father was a Protestant pastor, and as a boy, Denis would often follow him as he visited his ailing flock in Bukavu, a city in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the shore of Lake Kivu. During one such home call, his father prayed over a sick child. His little son was surprised to see that was all he did, since he also expected him to provide his charge with medicine. Denis asked his father about it. “My father’s response was very clear. He said to me, ‘I’m not a doctor.’ So, I said to him, ‘Daddy, I’m going to study medicine. I’m going to be a doctor. You can keep praying,’” remembers Dr. Mukwege. 

At first, he had intended to focus on pediatrics, but as he was starting his studies, he observed the patients of the Lemera Hospital in the DRC and was shocked to see how many women died in childbirth due to the loss of blood and other factors. Believing those deaths to be easily prevented, Denis Mukwege decided to pursue obstetrics instead. His congregation, the Swedish Pentecostal Mission, supported him in his medical studies so he’d be able to receive his education in France. After graduation, he came back and started working at Bukavu Hospital near the Rwandan border. 

In 1999, Dr. Mukwege opened the Panzi Hospital, designed as a clinic for gynecological and obstetric care. He was excited about an opportunity to put his knowledge and experience to good use in a country with one of the worst maternal mortality rates on record according to the World Bank. The reality turned out to be much more sinister. 

Dr. Mukwege addressing the medical personnel

Dr. Mukwege recalls that the first patient he saw didn’t come in for a caesarean birth or to deliver in a safe place. “She came because she had been raped repeatedly, and then she had been shot,” he explains. He treated her wounds, all the while thinking that it was an exceptional case. But in the next three months, he treated 45 patients with similar traumas. Dr. Mukwege began to realize that such horrific abuse was widespread in his country – and there was a vile intent behind it.

According to the UN, sexualized violence is often used during the war to terrorize the population and destroy communities. This inhumane practice is so common in the DRC, where conflict has been ongoing since the 1990s, that the country has gained notoriety as the “rape capital of the world.” After that first encounter, Dr. Mukwege has been dealing with the implications of this morbid title ever since. “Rape is not just a physical, violent act perpetrated against one victim. It is an assault on humanity. It destroys the will to live, it paralyzes victims, their families, and entire communities. In eastern Congo, thousands of families have been devastated,” wrote Dr. Mukwege in his op-ed for the TIME magazine published in 2017.

It was obvious that his patients required the kind of support that went way beyond medical treatment. To fulfill that need, Dr. Mukwege started developing an innovative holistic healing model that would enable survivors to undergo rehabilitation and reclaim their lives. Social workers were brought on the team to provide psychological support to women in addition to medical care. Still, it wasn’t enough.

The stigma attached to rape led to survivors often being ostracized by their own families. Rejected by their communities, many women had nowhere to go after being released from the hospital. In such cases, Dr. Mukwege saw self-reliance as an efficient tool to help them on their journey to reintegrating into society. His team started organizing professional trainings where ex-patients could further their education, learn trades, and even study the English language. The impact of this comprehensive program was exceptional. “Some of the women who I’ve treated have gone on to study medicine or to become nurses. And I see them taking care of other victims,” says Dr. Mukwege. To date, he and his team have helped more than 50,000 women of all ages.

Dr. Mukwege with his former patients in the DRC 

He also understands that this issue is not specific to his homeland. “We see this in all the conflicts everywhere in the world. In Bosnia, we saw rape used as a weapon of war to dehumanize the citizens of the former Yugoslavia. In Syria, there are witnesses who speak about the horror of those actions that are undertaken in order to deprive them of their humanity. I could go on and on,” notes Denis Mukwege. “The suffering is the same everywhere.” 

Dr. Mukwege has repeatedly gone on the record to state that perpetrators must answer for their despicable actions. “Sexual violence in Congo really is a weapon of war, and people doing it are not facing any consequences. We want justice. We can’t build peace without justice. If people are killing and raping freely, peace will never come. Impunity is one of the worst things that can happen anywhere, and in Congo, impunity is the rule,” notes the activist. 

His calls for judiciary responsibility did not always sit well with those who have reasons to be wary of future trials. Dr. Mukwege has been threatened many times over the years. In October 2012, he survived an assassination attempt. During the attack, his children were taken hostage in his own home, and his guard and close friend Joseph Bizimana was killed trying to protect him and his family. “I had just given a speech at the United Nations where I’d said that the international community isn’t doing enough, my own government isn’t doing enough. When I returned, the assassins came. When they shot at me, instead they hit him. He lost his life,” says Dr. Mukwege. “After experiencing this, for the first time, I felt that I just couldn’t continue this work. So, I left the country.”

He took his family to Brussels where they could be safe. However, he couldn’t help feeling restless, thinking about his patients back in Congo. “My initial decision to leave was a good decision. I had to think about my wife, my children, and this drama that I was exposing them to, all this violence around all of us,” explains Dr. Mukwege. “But then, women who I have treated wrote a letter, a kind of a petition to ask for my return.”

Not only did they do that, but they also decided to raise money for his airfare by selling fruit and vegetables at the Friday market. “This moved me so deeply. These are incredibly poor women, yet they were willing to give up everything to help me. So, I had to weigh my life and then all their lives and all the other people I could serve, and then it became clear to me what I had to do,” says the activist. In January 2013, he came back to the DRC.

The Aurora Prize Selection Committee member Shirin Ebadi and 2017 Aurora Humanitarian Dr. Denis Mukwege at the Aurora Prize Ceremony. Yerevan, Armenia, 2017

To avoid another tragedy, some serious security measures had to be undertaken with support from the European Union and the Panzi Foundation in the United States. “I now live at the hospital and I’m not free. I live in an enclosed area with barbed wire all around. Protection is provided, but this is not a normal life,” said Dr. Mukwege in 2017. Still, he continues his work, helping patients daily and campaigning globally to ban the use of all forms of sexualized violence in wartime. 

In 2018, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. Mukwege saw it as a sign that the world is finally ready to champion his cause. “For me, this was the recognition of all women who deserve more attention and need to be heard. And what the Nobel Prize changed in my life [is] that I know that today, no one can say, ‘I did not know what was happening in Congo. I wasn’t aware, I wasn’t informed about it.’”

Doctor Mukwege receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Oslo, Norway, 2018 © Nobel Media. Photo: Jo Straube

A year later, in 2019, he and his Nobel Prize co-laureate, Yazidi human rights activist Nadia Murad, launched the Global Survivors Fund (GSF) to empower the victims of conflict-related sexualized violence around the globe and help them receive reparations, which is their right according to the United Nations. “This is one of our biggest achievements. I saw that women who had been victims of a crime could wait for many years before they got reparation and justice. When suffering is universal, we need to address it in a universal way,” says Dr. Mukwege.

International recognition has helped him raise awareness of his cause, but the activist is far from achieving his goals. “People should know that in Congo, even if they sign several peace agreements, nothing is changing on the ground. At the hospital, we’re still treating around 5-7 women each day,” explains Dr. Mukwege. “After three decades, I’m still fighting to stop the use of rape as a weapon of war. We should not accept such a thing when we know it’s happening. It’s simply unacceptable.”