“For restoring dignity to thousands of women survivors of sexual violence by providing medical care and social support; for his dedication and contribution to building an integrated health care system in Eastern Congo; and for his profound commitment to his native country by tirelessly advocating a return to peace in a region where terror and fear destroy the very fabric of society.”
Dr Denis Mukwege is director of Panzi Hospital, established in 1999 in Bukavu, capital of South Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In this war-torn region, an estimated five million people have been killed over the past sixteen years. Hundreds of thousands of women have also been raped or savagely maimed. Rape, torture and mutilation are rife there, in a context where rebel forces attempt to institute a reign of terror and fear in order to seize control of mineral-rich areas.
Panzi Hospital is a general referral hospital with developing specializations in obstetrics, pediatrics, internal medicine, nutrition, and general and specialized surgery. 34 doctors work at the hospital, of whom 12 surgeons, out of a total medical staff of around 260 people.
While its primary objective was to make health care available to the population of Bukavu on a non-profit basis, it very soon became a reference centre for the survivors of sexual violence. At Panzi Hospital, Dr Mukwege and his team help those women regain the will to live. The establishment offers comprehensive care to the patients. The treatment of their physical and emotional injuries is coupled with a socioeconomic rehabilitation process to combat the exclusion which the survivors might face. This approach helps the women to recover physically and mentally, pick up their lives and so regain a certain measure of dignity. The care is free for vulnerable patients, including all survivors of sexual violence.
Over a period of ten years, Dr Mukwege and his team have treated more than 27,000 women with gynaecological disorders, most of them severe cases of reproductive trauma or trauma from sexual violence.
Denis Mukwege was born on 1 March 1955 in the province of South Kivu, in the easternmost part of the DRC. He is the third in a family of nine children, and his father was a Pentecostal minister. This family background has influenced his vocation, since he would often accompany his father on his pastoral duties. The reason why he chose to become a doctor, he recalls, was to be able to remedy the illnesses, for the curing of which his father turned to prayer.
After getting his secondary school certificate, Denis Mukwege embarked on medical studies in Burundi. He then worked at a rural hospital in his native region. Having observed the complications suffered by many Congolese women who had no access to proper medical care after giving birth, he decided to study gynaecology and obstetrics, and went to specialize in Angers in France.
When he returned in 1989, he set up a gynaecology ward at the hospital of Lemera in 2010-2011 his native region. This establishment was wellknown in the region and across the frontiers of the country. However, it was destroyed in 1996 during the first civil war (1996-1997) that ravaged eastern Congo. Dr Mukwege had to flee and became a refugee himself. He went to set up in Bukavu, where again he observed the suffering of women who had no access to a health care structure capable of helping them give birth. It was here that he conceived the idea of setting up a maternity unit with operating theatre at Panzi, in the southern suburbs of Bukavu. Panzi Hospital was established in 1999. Very soon, Dr Mukwege began to treat survivors of sexual violence and became a reference in this field in the region of the Great Lakes.
According to several international medical sources, Dr Mukwege is without doubt the most experienced expert in the world in healing the pathological and psychosocial damage caused by gang rapes and sexual violence. He often works 18 hours at a stretch and manages to perform several operations per day, involving complex surgery. When he describes these victims, the picture is a gruesome one: sometimes they are brought in naked, with open wounds, fistulas, losing blood and urine through their torn vagina. Some have been raped with bayonets, broken bottles, even with the barrel of a rifle.
The tireless and dedicated pioneering work of Dr Mukwege meets tragically immense and repeated needs. Since 2009, the political and military context in eastern Congo has deteriorated once again with intensified operations of government forces against the various rebel groups. Sexual violence is used as a weapon of war. Rape and sexual attacks are perpetrated systematically and strategically, and are often accompanied or followed by humiliation, injury, torture or murder.
This context does not prevent Dr Mukwege from seeking to take action over a longer term. In partnership with local organizations, he develops awareness campaigns in the region, and sees to it that maximum staff capacity is available to help the survivors. He has set up a training unit for nurses, midwifes and doctors to enhance the quality of the primary treatment offered locally to survivors in six health zones in the region. In this project he works together with the Fistula Hospital of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.
As you can see, Dr Mukwege’s work reaches beyond hospital treatment. He wants to put in place, in eastern Congo, an integrated health care system that meets the terrible challenges of violence and chaos. In addition, he has campaigned untiringly for the women of his region, denouncing the unbelievable acts of violence committed against them, as soon as he was offered an international platform. This happened in 2008, when he received the Olof Palme Prize and the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights, and was voted “African of the Year” by the Nigerian newspaper “Daily Trust”. On this occasion, former Tanzanian Prime Minister and former Secretary General of the OAU Salim Ahmed Salim emphasized that Dr Mukwege put his own life at risk with his campaign.
Sadly enough, the remarkable activities of Dr Mukwege have lost nothing of their relevance. Still confronted with the horrors of armed conflict he pursues his commitment to protecting the most vulnerable, with courage, dedication and resolve He is unquestionably a symbol of resistance and hope, a campaigner for peace and development.
Also read the press release Dr Mukwege, 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Winner
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