Dr. Denis Mukwege Mukengre

58-year-old Dr. Denis Mukwege is a gynecological surgeon in Bukavu, a city in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He treats women who have been gang-raped or suffered other forms of sexual violence.

Dr. Mukwege is the founder of Panzi Hospital, which provides maternal care free of charge for all women and serves as a safe haven in a region troubled by war and violence. Focusing on the promotion of quick basic health care for marginalized populations, Dr. Mukwege is also the founder of the Panzi Foundation.

Biography

Denis Mukwege was born in the Congo in 1955 to a Pentecostal pastor as the third of nine children. As a child he often accompanied his father on his visits to the sick, which encouraged him to pursue a career in medicine. Working in a rural hospital for some time strengthened his resolve to study medicine. He left the Congo in order to pursue his studies in Burundi. With the support of the Swedish Pentecostal Mission, he was able to further specialize in the field of gynecology by attending the Université d’Angers in France. He returned to the Congo in 1989 and opened a gynecological station in Lemera, which was destroyed during the First Congo War in 1996. With the help of UNICEF, Dr. Mukwege was able to construct a hospital in Bukavu in eastern DRC during the Second Congo War. It opened in 1999.

At first, Dr. Mukwege primarily treated pregnant women and assisted in childbirth in order to reduce the high death rate among women who did not receive adequate medical attention during pregnancy and childbirth. Soon, however, the consequences of the war became more drastic and Dr. Mukwege found himself treating women with severe gynecological problems caused by rape and other forms of sexual violence. Treating these survivors soon became one of the most important tasks of the hospital and Dr. Mukwege. Besides offering first aid and medical attention, he has further specialized in the reconstruction of mutilated genitalia.

Besides practicing medicine, Dr. Mukwege travels throughout the world in order to raise awareness for the situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2008, he addressed the United Nations General Assembly on the issue of sexual violence. After an assassination attempt by four armed men in October 2012, in which his bodyguard was killed, Dr. Mukwege left the Congo along with his wife and daughters and went into exile in Belgium. Just recently, in February 2013, the family returned to Bukavu and Dr. Mukwege took up his work again.

Panzi Hospital

Founded by Dr. Mukwege in 1999, Panzi Hospital has grown into a general hospital, focusing on the treatment of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. The hospital also provides maternal care free of charge for all women and takes a holistic treatment approach: patients receive psychological, spiritual, socioeconomic and legal help along with medical attention. The program “Survivors of Sexual Violence” is funded by the Swedish Pentecostal Mission and the European Commission.

Over the past fifteen years, Dr. Mukwege and his colleagues treated over 30,000 rape victims. There is still no end to the violence in sight, with ten to twelve victims arriving daily. The women who are treated at Panzi Hospital have suffered rape, torture and genital destruction – acid attacks on genitalia are but one example.

Dr. Mukwege founded the Panzi Foundation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2008 to support the ongoing work of Panzi Hospital. The Foundation intends to improve the outreach of services to rural clinics and communities. Provision of basic health care, especially for marginalized populations, is also included in the Foundation’s program. The organization’s work encompasses protecting women’s rights and gender equality, along with fighting for the prevention of violence against women and children and enabling access to maternal and reproductive health care.

The situation

Since gaining independence from Belgium in June 1960, the Congo has experienced ongoing power struggles, armed conflict and war. Immediately following independence, a nationwide army mutiny and the ensuing unrest were further fuelled by the intervention of foreign powers during the Cold War. Various parties exploited the country’s mineral wealth to consolidate their power and fund their activities. The US- and Belgium-backed government under Colonel Joseph Desire Mobutu was in power from 1965 until 1997. During these 32 years, the country’s continued instability saw the proliferation of rebel groups.

The situation escalated in the summer of 1994, after up to 2 million Hutu refugees fled into the Congo from the Tutsi rebellion in the neighboring country Rwanda. After brutally dismantling the refugee camps in 1996, the Congolese rebels marched into the capital Kinshasa and ousted President Mobutu. Rebel leader Laurent Kabila took power as president. He triggered the Second Congo War in 1998 by demanding the expulsion of all Rwandan troops and the removal of all Tutsi from government. In response, Rwandan and Ugandan troops invaded the DRC and only left in 2003 after successful peace negotiations. During this phase of the conflict, an estimated number of five million people died. The withdrawal of foreign military did not solve the internal turmoil – power struggles have continued, especially in eastern Congo, where rebel troops continue fighting over land and resources.

The humanitarian situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is devastating. Along with the many deaths resulting from war, war-related diseases and starvation, the sexual exploitation of women and children has caused an international uproar. An estimated 500,000 rape victims have been reported, and the United Nations continuously calls on both the military and the rebel troops to end the mass rapes and sexual violence. The ongoing armed conflict has also created a vast number of displaced persons – currently estimated at half a million. In addition to the humanitarian catastrophes, reports have lately surfaced claiming that the Rwandan and Ugandan governments are supplying the M23 rebel group in the Congo with weapons. Several leaders of this group are wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, including the forced conscription of child soldiers. And it’s not only the rebel groups that are committing war crimes and human rights violations, but also the government troops.

Overall, the Democratic Republic of the Congo faces considerable problems and challenges. Not only does it lack a functioning state and government structure including infrastructure and basic services, but it is also unable to gain control over rebel groups and their land, re-establish authority in liberated regions, and implement discipline in the ill-functioning and abusive military.

Achievements

Despite these difficult circumstances, Dr. Mukwege continues his work in the very unstable eastern part of the DRC. He received several prizes and awards for his constant effort, commitment and dedication, including the United Nations Human Rights Prize (2008) and the French Republic’s Special Human Rights Prize (2007 – to Panzi Hospital). In 2009, he was named African of the Year.

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