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In Congo, a doctor keeps helping as rape victims keep coming

A peace treaty has not stopped the rape as a weapon of war. Aid from Europe is drying up. But Denis Mukwege's efforts to help Congolese women hasn't flagged.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 25, 2008

HEALER: Dr. Denis Mukwege in Bukavu, Congo, with one of his patients.

Scott Baldauf/The Christian Science Monitor

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Bukavu, Democratic Republic Of Congo

As a senior surgeon at a hospital in war-torn eastern Congo, Denis Mukwege expected that his workload would ease when a peace treaty was signed earlier this year.

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But while the war ended on paper, it continued on the ground. The combatants kept their weapons. They dug in, and took out their aggressions on local villagers.

Dr. Mukwege is a gynecologist. The majority of his patients are rape victims. And Congo, home of the world's bloodiest conflict since World War II, also has the globe's highest incidence of rape.

"It is always a joy when you treat someone and they get well, and you see them, for the first time, smile again," says Mukwege, resting after a long day of reconstructive surgery on rape victims at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. "But then I start seeing women I treated in 2003, and I ask myself, why should I continue with this work?"

He sighs. "I can't be discouraged by the work if the problem will end. But if you can't see the end...."

For more than a decade, Dr. Mukwege and his small team of assistants at Panzi Hospital have fought a small war of their own to help women recover their dignity as well as their health, during a long regional conflict that has turned gang rape into a weapon of war. The conflict shows few signs of stopping.

A peace treaty brokered by the European Union in January, and signed by dozens of armed groups – including the Rwandan rebel group responsible for the Rwandan genocide of 1994 – fell apart quickly on charges of government insincerity. Among the first victims to come to Panzi Hospital were once again the victims of rape – a crime of intimidation against Congolese communities, and often carried out in public to spread fear among the local population.

"Everyone says the war in Congo is complicated. It's not complicated. It's an economic war that's been fought on the bodies of women. It is the systematic destruction of the female population of the Congo, and it's conscious and it's intentional," says Eve Ensler, an American playwright and founder of V-Day, a women's rights group.

"I'm here to say we can do something – we can end impunity, we can arrest war criminals who are orchestrating this war from abroad ... and we can support building a huge women's movement on the ground."

Ensler heads up a funding effort for Panzi Hospital called "City of Joy," which creates a safe environment for rape victims to live and get job training.

Rape victims say they have difficulty returning to normal lives. If they are married, their husbands often reject them for having sex (even involuntarily) with another man. If they bear children, their children are often rejected by their families and local communities. Children whose mothers have been raped by Rwandan rebels are particularly reviled, and are often called "the children of snakes."

How to help

V-Day – a global women's rights group started by playwright Eve Ensler ("The Vagina Monologues"), has organized City of Joy, a funding drive for rape victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

SAFER, Social Aid for the Elimination of Rape – a Canadian group that is helping Panzi Hospital to meet its financial needs.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation – a Canadian group that funds projects in sub-Saharan Africa with a special focus on HIV/AIDS. The foundation has a fund drive for Panzi Hospital.