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Denis Mukwege helps women ravaged by Congo war

Denis Mukwege and his staff have treated more than 30,000 women, most of them survivors of sexual assaults, since he opened the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1999.

By Patrick WallContributor / June 30, 2011

Surgeon Denis Mukwege has treated thousands of rape victims at his Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Thousands of women have suffered as the result of years of brutal civil wars.

Courtesy of the King Baudouin Foundation

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A woman arrived at the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) a few years ago weighing just under 62 pounds. Armed militants had murdered three of her eight children and her husband. The gunmen had repeatedly raped the woman, who as a result had become incontinent and infected with HIV.

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For Denis Mukwege, Panzi’s founder and a savior to thousands of Congolese rape victims, the woman’s situation was hauntingly familiar. Dr. Mukwege is a renowned gynecologist who specializes in repairing the internal organs of women maimed by sexual violence.

“Everyday I operate on 10 women,” says Mukwege. “And there are hundreds more who are waiting.”

Mukwege and his staff at Panzi have treated more than 30,000 women, most of them survivors of sexual assault, since he opened the hospital in 1999. Since then, a vicious war that has displaced and killed millions of Congolese has officially ended – yet, every day, Mukwege meets more women with lives and bodies ravaged by violence.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a central African nation with about a fourth the land area of the United States and a population of some 71 million. Armed insurrections and civil wars that began in the mid-1990s have devastated the country – particularly its eastern half, which borders Rwanda.

By 2007, nearly a decade after the start of a 1998-2002 war, as many as 5.4 million Congolese may have died from violence, disease, and hunger caused by the conflict, according to the relief group the International Rescue Committee. Children account for nearly half of the dead. Today more than 19,000 United Nations peacekeepers – the largest such UN force in the world – remain in the DRC.

As a young physician, Mukwege planned to work as a pediatrician. But when he saw one woman after another die from childbirth and other preventable causes, he changed his plans and traveled to France to study gynecology. Back in the DRC, Mukwege soon put his training to a new use: treating women raped by soldiers and armed rebels.

After the civil wars began, various armed groups started to use sexual violence as a weapon. Gangs of men raided villages and raped women and girls, brutalizing some with rifles and slivers of wood, and capturing others as sex slaves.

“It’s a strategy that destroys not only the victim; it destroys the whole family, the whole community,” Mukwege says. “It’s very efficient as far as destruction goes.”

Despite the 2002 peace accords, the sexual violence has continued. A 2011 report published in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that 1,152 women were raped every day in the DRC during a 12-month period between 2006 and 2007.

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