Rebecca Turkington, assistant director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, sat down with Dr. Denis Mukwege to discuss his innovative model for rehabilitating women victims of sexual violence. Dr. Mukwege, who won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize with Nadia Murad, is the founder and medical director of Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a tireless advocate for the rights of women in the DRC. This interview was conducted in 2014 as part of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace & Security’s “Profiles in Peace” oral history project. It has been translated from French and edited for length and clarity.
RT: Why did you decide to establish the Panzi Hospital, and what were you hoping to achieve?
Dr. Denis Mukwege: The Panzi Hospital was founded in 1999. I had realized at that time that the maternal mortality rates in Congo were amongst the highest in the world, and this to me was unbearable. I thought that in order to create an ocean, you have to start with a single drop, and I had to do my part in this work. I opened this hospital, at first just two rooms, where I was only supposed to conduct deliveries and C-Sections in order to reduce maternal mortality. Unfortunately, we were in the midst of a conflict. The first woman that I treated at the hospital had not come in for a C-Section, but had been raped and shot in the genitals, and this shocked me. It was the first time I had seen such a barbarian act, and I thought at the time that it was a lone act. Unfortunately I was wrong.
RT: We know it is crucial to see women not only as victims, but as peacemakers, as change agents, which is also part of what you do at Panzi Hospital. Could you talk about how you’re working to rehabilitate women, reintegrate women in society, and give them a voice?
DM: Indeed, I think our work is to transform these women from victims into survivors. Not just survivors, but to empower them, and to have this power turn into genuine leadership of their communities.
Most women who come to us come because of problems that are directly linked to their rape, and that pertains to the surgical aspect of the work we do. That is step number one. The second step is the psychological care. Every woman who comes to us is traumatized by the barbaric treatment they suffered, but also traumatized by the stigma attached to their experience, by exclusion from their community, by being abandoned by their husbands.
The third step is to give them socio-economic support, because when a woman is healed physically and psychologically and you send her back to her community, the stigma doesn’t end. But if you send her back with an economic capability, or you educate her, then it’s the community that needs her because she comes back with something to offer. She can do something for the community, and so the community comes to her. When you have a business, the villagers come and buy from you. And when they come and buy from you, they are not buying from a victim; they are buying from a woman who owns a shop. They go to a health center, and it’s a nurse who treats them. They go to a school and it’s a teacher educating them. We have seen that just treating physical and psychological symptoms— if you don’t also give women this capacity, you have only done half of your work.
RT: There have been growing calls from the international community condemning sexual and gender based violence in conflict, particularly in the DRC. Do you think there is progress as people begin to recognize the importance of this issue? How can the international community can play a role?
DM: The first time I was invited to the Security Council to talk about rape, I remember one representative of a large nation of the Security Council who asked me, “Why should this question be discussed at the Security Council?” Today we have reached a point where the problem of rape in conflict is no longer a question. Rape and sexual violence in conflict is becoming a crime that can be considered a crime against humanity, and so I believe that there have been great developments.
But the question of sexual violence is not one that men should leave up to women on the idea that it is a women’s problem and that women should be the ones advocating against it and demanding justice. Women have done a lot, they have fought to have their voices heard on the subject. But rape is not an attack on women, it is an attack against all humanity. I believe we must all stand up as one—men, women, everyone must stand up to condemn these crimes and to put every possible mechanism in place so that our society becomes aware of the destructive capacity of rape and to put an end to it. I was very happy when I saw 115 countries sign up to the “Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.” If I remember correctly there were two presidents in the room. We want to see a lot more presidents when we talk about sexual violence.
RT: As you say, it’s so important to have men fighting for this as well, and you certainly are one of them. And you’ve faced a lot of threats over this, to your own safety. You have put yourself at great risk to fight this fight. What inspires you to, what keeps you going back home even though you know it’s dangerous?
DM: I understood the strength there is in women. I understood the capacity women have to change, to transform things. I understood that you cannot silence women with a small attack. They can resist, they are strong. I have seen women come to the hospital weighing less then 30 kilos, who were only bones. Who had been raped, hurt, infested, who everyone was running away from. But when you treat her and she gets up, she heals, the first thing she asks, that she fights for, is not herself. She fights for her child. Women fight for their community, for their society. They fight for change.
I personally believe what fuels my inspiration are women. I was attacked in October 2012. I had decided to leave Congo permanently. I was already here in the US, in Boston, and the women wrote to me. Their writings were a cry of alarm, a cry of despair, to tell me “our struggle continues, we need you, we need your help. Come back. We will ensure your safety.” They thought they were capable of protecting me when the State could not. I simply could not stay indifferent. They wrote “From now on, we are going to sell tomatoes and pineapples and embers to pay for your ticket back.” I made the decision and I left because I trust the women. I left because I think my life compared to the thousands of women who are massacred every day… I only represented one life, maybe one that can save a few others. Together, we can face the violence. My strength comes from women.