“I have no intention of becoming a martyr”

“I have no intention of becoming a martyr”

An obstetrician turned gynecological surgeon who is providing physical, psychological and legal support to more than 50,000 survivors of sexual violence in the DRC while fearlessly seeking to bring to justice those responsible, Dr. Denis Mukwege, founder of the Panzi Hospital, has dedicated his life to serving others. Here he talks about stepping up and breaking the silence.

Becoming a doctor

When I was 8 years old, I was following my father, who was a pastor. He went to visit a sick child and prayed over this child. It shocked me a little bit – he prayed over the child but didn’t give him any medicine. When I was sick as a little boy, my father would pray, then he would also give me medicine. So, I asked him the question – why didn’t you give him any medicine? 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”. And the adventure of everything I’ve done since started that very day.


                                     Denis Mukwege in Panzi Hospital, DRC

I got my degree in pediatrics. After starting my studies and some work, the second thing that shocked me in my life was to see how many women died in childbirth through loss of blood and other things. That’s why I decided to study obstetrics. I studied for five years in France, in Angers, and after my studies I returned to the same hospital where I worked before, in the high plateau above Uvira in the DRC. I worked there for more than 12 years to fight against maternal mortality.

Rape as a weapon of war

I don’t think rape being used as a weapon of war is purely an issue in Africa. We see this in all the conflicts everywhere in the world. Much closer to you, in Bosnia, we saw rape used as a weapon of war to dehumanize the citizens of the former Yugoslavia. In Syria, this is an issue of tremendous concern and there are witnesses, women who are now in Germany, who speak about their experience in prison, the horror of those actions that are undertaken in order to sap them, to deprive them of their humanity, their morality. I could go on and on. In Asia, in Latin America, we see rape used as a weapon of war, intended to humiliate the adversary, call them “enemies” in quotation marks, if you will. Always undertaken as a tool, as a weapon of war, to deprive them of their humanity. 

The following video is in French.

Women are speaking out

Some things have gotten better, some things have not. It’s true that today in terms of overall numbers there are fewer rapes. But the horrible men who have committed these crimes are still around in the society, so they can disseminate all these horrible actions that they engaged in. That still goes on. So, in the very important fight against the impunity we’ve seen some small measures undertaken, but really nothing that could seriously address this horrible problem of impunity. One of the successes that rapists have is to silence the girls and women that they’ve raped, and I think one of the most important results that I can talk about is that we have broken the silence so that girls and women who have survived these rapes are now speaking out, and this is happening not only in the DRC, but also in other countries.



                                     Denis Mukwege in Yerevan, Armenia

I see that some of the women who I’ve treated have gone on to study medicine or to become nurses. And when I see them taking care of other victims I think that’s absolutely the spirit that you’re talking about through the Aurora Prize. <…> Breaking the silence about such things internationally is a very important way to move forward. Going back about ten years even I felt that I didn’t have room to speak out. But now we’re at the point where these women are able to come together and speak out. 

On personal risks and living in danger

In 2012 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 to protect women and to fight this drama of these rapes and crimes that are committed against girls and women in the Congo. After the speech, when I returned, there were not only my children taken hostage, but a man, a close collaborator of mine, tried to protect me when the assassins came and when they shot at me, instead they hit him. The bullets hit him, and he lost his life. After experiencing this, I couldn’t continue. For the first time, I felt that I just couldn’t continue this work and so I left the country. 

When I finally returned, I now live at the hospital and I’m not free. I live in an enclosed area with barbed wire all around. I have protection provided. This is not a normal life. 


                                     Denis Mukwege in Yerevan, Armenian

Inspiration to return and to continue 

I think that 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. But then, when I was thinking about returning, something else happened. Women who I have treated formed a community and they wrote a letter, a kind of a petition to ask for my return. That created an entirely different circumstance where there was a need to go back and to respond to the urgent requirements that remained. These women who wanted me to return, they wrote to the President of the Congo, they wrote to the Secretary General of the United Nations, but they got no response. They decided, well, we’ll do it. We’ll do everything. We’ll purchase the ticket so that Dr. Mukwege can return, we’ll provide him his security. 

They were selling fruits and vegetables every Friday and I saw the money that they were raising to help me. This moved me so deeply. These are incredibly poor women. They don’t even earn 1 dollar a day. Yet they were willing to give everything to help me. So, I had to weigh my life and then all the lives, their lives and all the other people I could serve, and then it became clear to me what I had to do.


                                Denis Mukwege at the European Parliament


Certainly, after my colleague was murdered, with actions by the European Union, by the Belgian Parliament, by the Panzi Foundation in the United States, I started to receive protection, once more, from the United Nations to give me the security I required. If I didn’t have this international reputation, this international recognition, the situation would have been very different. It would be very difficult to guarantee me the conditions I need, in which to continue my work. I have no intention of becoming a martyr.

The following video is in French

We must draw a red line and say NO

My dream is for the world to understand that this drama of raping and violence committed against girls and women must come to an end. We have to draw a red line and say, no more of this. We cannot permit this continuing of people who engage in rape with a purpose of denying the humanity of the girls and women who they’ve raped. You know the circumstances when the world didn’t care, when the world didn’t react, like the Armenian Genocide, like the Holocaust. Now it’s time to put an end to this and to say <…> there can't be more rapes, no more of this, and we just completely refuse that this continues in our world.


                       Denis Mukwege at the 2017 Aurora Prize Award Ceremony


We’ve seen what the world has done to abolish the use of chemical weapons, and when they were used in Syria, we’ve seen the reaction, the strong reaction against this by everybody. And we have similar things relating to biological weapons, even nuclear weapons. We need to do the same thing regarding rape. If it was possible for chemical weapons, biological weapons and nuclear weapons, why can’t we do the same thing regarding rape? It’s just a question of will, so of course we can do it. And we must.