There are moments in life that you will never forget, and there are people you meet whose presence forever remains in your heart. Dr. Denis Mukwege is one of those people
Some people call him “Superman,” a “spiritual force,” or in his native French, “Le docteur,” but I believe the best, most encompassing word to describe Dr. Mukwege is: a hero.
Dr. Denis Mukwege is a world-renowned gynecological surgeon and the founder and medical director of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Dr. Mukwege opened the hospital in 1998 with the intention of working on issues of maternal health, but as internal violence erupted within the country, Dr. Mukwege and his staff found themselves caring for thousands of victims of sexual violence.
Dr. Mukwege has been a fearless advocate for the increased protection of women and children, in a country that has been referred to by the UN as the “rape capital of the world.”
Dr. Mukwege has urged the international community to bring the perpetrators, who include both militia groups and Congolese government officials, of these horrific war crimes and crimes against humanity to justice. But his actions, and activism, has made him a target.
A year ago, four armed men in civilian clothes broke into Dr. Mukwege’s home in Bukavu and held his family at gunpoint. When Dr. Mukwege arrived home, his trusted guard jumped out to confront the attackers and was shot. With bullets flying, Dr. Mukwege threw himself to the ground, and the attackers hastily fled. After narrowly escaping an assassination attempt, Dr. Mukwege and his family were forced to flee the country to Belgium, but the doctor could not stay away from Panzi for long.
In September of 2012, Dr. Mukwege spoke before the United Nations General Assembly where he shamed international actors and the Congolese government for allowing the barbarity in eastern DRC to continue for the past sixteen years without any consequences. Reports by the UN Human Rights commissioner and human rights organizations provide constant evidence of the severity of the crisis, but the lack of political will stands in the way.
“We are facing a humanitarian emergency that no longer has room for equivocation. All the ingredients are there to put an end to an unjust war that has used violence against women and rape as a strategy of war. Congolese women have the right to protection just as all the women on this planet.”
In January 2013, Dr. Mukwege returned to the DRC where he was greeted by a line of Congolese women that stretched the entire 20-miles between the airport and Bukavu, welcoming “Le docteur” home.
Dr. Mukwege and his colleagues continue to save the lives of women and children at Panzi hospital, having now treated over 30,000 survivors of sexual violence, in addition speaking out against rape as a weapon of war in the DRC. It is estimated that there are over 200,000 surviving rape victims living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today.
Despite the DRC signing an accord with the UN in April of this year to “step up the fight,” against sexual abuse committed by soldiers and rebel groups, Human Rights Watch has documented 61 cases of rape of women and girls by fighters in the M23 rebel group between March and early July of 2013. However, because of the stigma surrounding rape, the actual number of victims may be much higher. The Congolese government and the international community need to openly condemn the persisting violence in the DRC and actively implement policies to impede further atrocities from taking place.
For his work, Dr. Mukwege has won many human rights awards, and has been considered as a Nobel Peace Prize contender on multiple occasions. And on Wednesday, October 23, 2013, Dr. Denis Mukwege received the 2013 Human Rights First Award in New York City for his dedication to bringing peace and justice to the women of the DRC. Over 1,000 people consisting of celebrities, philanthropists, activists came to honor Dr. Mukwege’s work.
I had the privilege to meet him earlier in the week at a reception hosted by Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights First. Getting to speak face-to-face with one of my personal heroes is a memory I will not soon forget. Dr. Mukwege expressed his sincerest gratitude to the organizations in the U.S. committed to raising awareness and taking action against the atrocities taking place in the eastern DRC. As a student activist, these words reminded me of my responsibility to do all that is in my power to fight for justice and peace.
We must answer Dr. Mukwege’s call for peace. There are several ways you can help Dr. Denis Mukwege and the women of the Democratic Republic of the Congo:
- Donate to the Panzi Hospital Foundation USA, established by Lee Ann De Reus, Peter Frantz, and Dr. Mukwege to raise funds for the hospital through various campaigns.
- Get involved with the movement to end mass atrocities with United to End Genocide
- Ask your representative to sign House Resolution 131that concerns the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the need for international efforts toward long-term peace, stability, and observance of human rights.
Dr. Mukwege has dedicated all of his honors and awards to the courageous victims of sexual violence in the eastern DRC. Despite lack of international action, the perils of living in a war zone, seemingly never-ending violence and threats to his own life, Dr. Mukwege firmly believes that we will overcome this evil. We must continue to stand together, raise our voices and never forget that hope is still alive in the Congo.