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Change Agent

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.

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“Man has a tendency to behave in a deviant way,” when the social order collapses, Mukwege says. “And, unfortunately, the first victim is always the woman right beside him.”

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Rape victims arrive at Panzi Hospital, in the city of Bukavu in the eastern DRC, with an array of severe health problems, including serious internal injuries. Some women are impregnated or infected with sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.

Mukwege is a skilled surgeon. His hospital – whose services are free – also treats malnourishment and the trauma induced by rape and the intense stigma that accompanies it.

Women who have survived sexual assaults may face lifelong disabilities that limit their ability to work. Many are shunned by neighbors and abandoned by husbands. These lasting aftereffects render rape more potent than traditional weapons, Mukwege says.

When a loved one is shot and killed, he says, “You bury them, you cry. It takes time to heal, but you move on.”

But rape is different, Mukwege says. “How can you tell that woman, ‘What happened to you was in the past, now move on’?”

Mukwege worries that after so many years of lawlessness in the DRC, rape has congealed into a social norm. To counter this, he has publicly challenged the Congolese government to prosecute rapists in the military and civil society.

“The way of war can become a way of life,” says Margot Wallström, the UN’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. “[Mukwege] calls upon government and all actors to be accountable, to do the right thing, and to start to turn things around.”

Mukwege has also urged world leaders to do more to stop the rape epidemic. He recently discussed the issue with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

“On one side, I feel that there’s an international recognition of what’s happening,” Mukwege says. “But on the other hand, very little is done to stop it.”

To treat and defend Congolese rape victims can be daunting work. Many of Mukwege’s colleagues have been overwhelmed, he says, by their patients’ nightmarish stories of abuse and suffering. Mukwege himself has received death threats on account of his work.

But Mukwege and his staff – who together treat about 3,600 women a year – have also been widely lauded for their efforts. This May, for instance, the King Baudouin Foundation, a Belgian philanthropic group, awarded Mukwege a prize worth $210,000.

The work also offers more profound rewards.

After months of treatment, the rape survivor and mother of five who entered Panzi deathly ill and malnourished finally was discharged. On that day, she weighed 132 pounds – more than twice her weight when she arrived.

Back on her own, she used a $50 grant from the hospital to start a small business. Soon she had earned enough money to build a house for her family, send her children to school, and even buy a small TV.

Mukwege cried when he saw her transformation. “My God, what strength,” he says, “what strength.”

• For more information on the work of Dr. Mukwege and the Panzi Hospital, go to panzihospital.org. For information on the King Baudouin Foundation, go to www.kbs-frb.be

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