One day about 10 years ago, I received a call from the humanitarian affairs office of the UN in New York. A doctor from the Democratic Republic of the Congo was visiting, and our UN colleagues thought Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) might be interested in meeting with him. I was told the doctor was a surgeon specialized in treating women and girls who were being raped in massive numbers during the brutal wars in eastern Congo. Today, that doctor is receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. I am proud to call him a colleague and a friend, and to be in Oslo to witness the occasion.
What followed that first encounter between the extraordinary gynecological surgeon, Denis Mukwege, and PHR has been a profound and ambitious journey. We have partnered with Dr. Mukwege at UN forums in New York and Geneva, contributed together to a world summit on war-related sexual violence in London, and, most importantly, spent countless hours learning and teaching alongside him and his staff at Panzi Hospital in South Kivu, DRC to support survivors of these appalling crimes. Following a 2012 assassination attempt against Dr. Mukwege, we arranged a month-long refuge for him and his family near our then-headquarters in Boston.
The conflicts in eastern Congo are based on greed and the corrupt pursuit of power and control over vast mineral resources in an utterly impoverished country. They have taken a horrifying toll of up to six million lives over the past 20 years. Millions more women and girls have been raped or suffered other sexual violence – what was long known as “the silent crime.” It happened far from view. The shame and stigma attached to sexual violence and the sheer terror inflicted on the victims made it certain that most would keep quiet about assaults. There was little hope that police and courts would respond.
Thanks in great part to Dr. Mukwege’s leadership in breaking the silence, the crime of rape in war is finally heard and widely discussed. From caring for and healing thousands of lacerations and fistulas, trauma and isolation, came Dr. Mukwege’s thunderous message of medical and moral clarity. The ferocity of the attacks caused harms beyond imagination. Medical care and psychological support were desperately needed. But the unbridled violence perpetrated against his patients required an end to rampant impunity for the crimes as well.
When Dr. Mukwege first visited PHR in the United States, his anger and frustration were palpable. “I am treating women and sending them back to their villages only to be attacked again,” he told our staff. He related the grotesque term, “re-rape.” And he turned to us, saying, “My surgery is not enough. We need justice. An end to impunity.”
At PHR, which uses medicine and science to expose human rights abuses, we believe that an integral part of a doctor’s duty to victims of crimes is to document their injuries so they can contribute to a justice process. In Dr. Mukwege, we felt we had found a new, natural ally. “Come to Congo,” he appealed.
And so we did. Together with Dr. Mukwege’s staff and PHR experts, we have trained more than 1,350 doctors, lawyers, police, and judges in the DRC on how to document, preserve, and use evidence of sexual violence to obtain justice for survivors. We have worked with Panzi Hospital and staff to standardize the forensic intake form so that the medical information can be used in courts. We have advocated together for a holistic response to sexual violence – one which includes social and economic recovery. Together, we have developed dedicated pediatric examination spaces and processes for treating child patients.
And together, we tackled the heart-wrenching Kavumu case. For the past four years, every time I saw Dr. Mukwege, he was gripped by anguish over the serial assaults of tiny girls abducted from their homes in the dark of night, raped, mutilated, and left lying in the fields of the village of Kavumu. How could these crimes continue, with the same pattern and devastating injuries, year after year?
We resolved to bring everything we had to this case. Working over the course of four years with Congolese partners, Trial International, Panzi doctors, and the South Kivu military court, we finally saw the case successfully prosecuted. In December 2017, a sitting local parliamentarian, along with 10 members of his vicious militia, were convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison.
This signal judgment, like today’s Nobel Prize, is yet another step in ending the silence, stopping the shame and stigma, and bringing the voices of survivors to the fore.
Denis Mukwege’s life and work also demonstrate that stopping violence against women must be as much the work of men as it is of women. For, at its root, it results from gross gender discrimination. I will never forget a conversation with Dr. Mukwege in his Panzi Hospital office when he pulled out several photos of women with deep bruises and scars on their backs. Hands on his hips over his lab coat, he thundered above me, “Do you know what this is? It’s the wounds of women forced to bear burdens on their backs, day in and out, that are twice their own weight. We treat women worse than beasts. We owe them their dignity.”
It’s all about dignity for Dr. Mukwege. Which is why he perseveres today in bringing the voices of women and girls to the fore and has created an entire wing at Panzi that is devoted to economic empowerment for survivors.
“At Panzi, our holistic care programme – which includes medical, psychological, socio-economic and legal support – shows that even if the road to recovery is long and difficult, victims have the potential to turn their suffering into power,” Dr. Mukwege said in his Nobel acceptance speech today.
But he also warned: “This human tragedy will continue if those responsible are not prosecuted. Only the fight against impunity can break the spiral of violence.”
Dr. Mukwege accepted today’s Nobel in the name of those that have suffered so much – the Congolese people, more than 1,000 of whom have come to Oslo to honor his extraordinary work. Amidst the awe-inspiring grandeur and pageantry of the Nobel ceremony, I sat behind a Congolese colleague from Panzi Hospital who was dressed in traditional celebratory clothing and who led in the ululations that other women picked up from the back of the enormous hall when Mukwege’s honor was announced. People stood and clapped for a full five minutes for him. They later did the same when co-laureate Nadia Murad, a brave and outspoken Yazidi survivor, told her story. A Congolese journalist in the balcony photographer line started waving a DRC flag when Dr. Mukwege ended his remarks with a demand for peace.
There were many moments when I choked up – feeling the weight of these wars and the horror of the suffering, but grateful for these courageous human beings who represent such exceptional resilience and conviction.
They embody the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose 70th anniversary we observe today, and whose lofty preamble begins with the recognition that the “inherent dignity and … the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Today, we also celebrate the Nobel Committee’s recognition of the doctor who demands justice: a dear friend, courageous colleague, partner in advocacy, source of inspiration and hope.
Together with Nadia Murad, and with the force of this huge honor, Dr. Mukwege will continue to shatter the silence and to shame the perpetrators and bystanders to these heinous violations of rights and dignity.
Photo: Dr. Denis Mukwege with PHR’s Karen Naimer, Director of the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones (left) and Susannah Sirkin, Director of International Policy and Partnerships (right).