After several nominations, Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege was finally awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year, with the Swedish Academy’s award crowning his life-long efforts in serving women often deprived of the most basic medical, psychological and social services.
Mukwege shares the Prize with Iraqi human-rights activist Nadia Murad, also known for her endeavours to combat sexual violence as a weapon of war.
The Congolese surgeon won the hearts of the women he treated after they were subjected to rape, earning him the titles of “Doctor Miracle” and “the Angel of Bukavu,” a city in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
After graduating with a medical degree from the University of Burundi in 1983, Mukwege worked as a paediatrician in the rural hospital of Lemera near Bukavu, the biggest city in the east of the DRC.
Despite the fact that he loved treating children, after he saw women patients suffering from the absence of proper medical care after giving birth and the subsequent high mortality rates among mothers, he studied gynaecology and obstetrics at the University of Angers in France.
In 1989, and after completing his medical residency, he went back to the Lemera Hospital.
However, with the eruption of the First Congo War (1996-1997) that overthrew Zaire’s then dictator Mobutu Sésé Seko, the Lemera Hospital was destroyed, forcing Mukwege to move to the city of Kivu.
In 1999, he founded the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, and ever since he has been caring for the survivors of sexual assaults, providing holistic, legal, psychological and social assistance for women victims.
Stephanie Nolen, a correspondent for the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail, wrote in an article entitled “Where Repairing Rape Damage is an Expertise” in 2008 that Mukwege had “treated 21,000 rape victims”.
The DRC has been mired in almost continuous violence since its independence from Belgium in 1960, rendering millions dead, injured or displaced.
The Second Congo War, which began in 1998 and officially ended in 2003, saw militias use systematic rape as a means to control communities and the country’s mineral wealth.
Such atrocities are continuing in the country today, and the conflict has extended to areas patrolled by UN and Western peacekeeping forces, complicating matters further.
Rape has been used a weapon of war in many conflicts around the world, including in Darfur in Sudan and by the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq.
It was thus appropriate for the Swedish Academy to announce its support for women victimised by rape and to draw the world’s attention to their need of medical, psychological, social and economic assistance.
The US Pacific Standard magazine has reported that the Panzi Hospital in the DRC has treated over 85,000 women suspected of having suffered various forms of assault.
It said the US National Library of Medicine had estimated that in 2011 somewhere between 1.69 and 1.8 million women in the DRC had been raped at least once in their lives.
In addition to the trauma of the rape itself, rape may also result in diseases such as HIV/AIDS and damage such as vaginal fistulas, which require specialised treatment and reconstructive surgery.
Sexually assaulted women now flock to Panzi from all over the DRC. During the first decade after the hospital’s opening, most women came from eastern Congo.
Today, they come from wherever ethnic strife, which has claimed the lives of thousands, is taking place.
Mukwege’s challenges do not stop at the lack of medical facilities and the thousands of traumatised women who appear at the Panzi Hospital’s doors.
He has also been targeted for assassination, the most dangerous occasion being on 25 October 2012 when five gunmen broke into his home, killed his bodyguard, and held his two daughters hostage.
He fled with his family to Belgium, but returned to the DRC in 2013 to continue his work, saying that it was impossible to be silent when hundreds of women and girls were being raped or brutalised every day.
US journalist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote that Mukwege had been targeted because of a speech at the UN a month earlier in which he had condemned the use of sexual assault as a weapon of war.
He also criticised the impunity that is widely spread in the DRC, the government of which has done nothing to stop what he called “an unjust war that has used violence against women and rape as a strategy of war.”
Mukwege uses a five-step treatment to help the victims of rape, including medical care, psychological help, social support, economic empowerment through finding jobs for assaulted women, helping them maintain their previous jobs, or through education and training, and legal assistance by seeking justice and compensation for victims.
The Panzi Hospital’s doors remain open thanks to Mukwege’s tireless efforts to seek international support for sexually abused women and children in the DRC and to keep the world’s eyes open to a country torn by violent conflict.
Should there be further clashes over power between DRC President Joseph Kabila, who had vowed to step down in December 2016 but will remain at the helm till at least 2019, and his opponents, the armed conflict in the country will likely escalate.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The ‘Angel of Bukavu’