Weekly Feature

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Sipa via AP

Innovators: Dr. Denis Mukwege

July 24, 2008
by Sarah Amandolare
Despite all that has been written about the plight of women in Africa, it seems the world has not yet awoken to it, and large-scale action remains a distant dream of those working on the front lines. One faithful servant to Congolese women is Dr. Denis Mukwege, a man who refuses to look away from the country’s unspeakable horrors. Mukwege works with rape victims, some of whom are under 10 years old, and most of whom have been rejected by their families and villages.

Mukwege’s Background

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Born to a family of nine children, Mukwege possesses a keen appreciation of Congolese women and mothers, and is the father of five children with his wife Kaboyi Mapendo Madeleine. Mukwege’s father was a pastor for a Swedish mission, and took his son on visits to hospitals, giving the future doctor his initiation into the medical field. Mukwege went on to attend medical school in Burundi, and, after witnessing how difficult it was to be a pregnant woman in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), he studied gynecology and obstetrics in France. Finally, Mukwege returned and settled in Bukavu, a city in the eastern DRC, beginning his life’s work at Panzi Hospital, where “the idea was born” to specialize in female victims of sexual violence.

Crisis in the Congo

To understand Mukwege’s deep commitment to rape victims, it is essential to learn about the complexity and intensity of the crisis in the DRC, where rape is used as a weapon of war. A findingDulcinea article addresses the conflict, which stems from Rwanda’s genocide in the 1990s that produced homegrown militias. These violent factions run amok in the Congo, fighting for power, land and resources, and using rape to demoralize entire communities.

Mukwege the Maverick

“You have to go back further than 1996 to understand what is going on in the Congo today. This country has been tortured for more than 120 years,” writes Eve Ensler in Glamour magazine. Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” traveled to the DRC to meet Mukwege and the women he treats at Panzi. Upon her return, Ensler concluded, “the violent consequences of genocide and colonialism have had a profound impact on the psyche of the Congolese.” The result is an epidemic of violent rape, often occurring in public or in front of husbands and children. Mukwege told Ensler he abstains from hearing victims’ stories now; he used to listen, but the violent tales became too much to take. Furthermore, Mukwege has faced phoned death threats. “The calls have ceased, but it is still very dangerous,” he said.
It is hard to fathom the scope of Mukwege’s kindness and resiliency. He says that “important people,” including the president of the DRC and many reporters, have visited him between surgeries, seen the hospital and met with traumatized women. But still, nothing has really been done to stop the vicious fighting, he tells the Web site In the Fray. “You see thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people who are completely destroyed and left lifeless, and you know the world knows about this. I’ve begun to lose my faith in mankind,” he said.
In 2006, the Washington Times said the UN Population Fund was seeking $20 million to cope with sexual violence in “refugee camps and conflict zones,” where rape victims are often left with “pregnancy complications and obstetric fistulas, in which a woman’s reproductive and urinary organs are so badly injured they cannot heal, creating chronic injury and infections.” In the DRC, Mukwege is leading the effort to restore women affected by such injuries, prompting the Washington Times to dub him “something of a maverick.”
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