Our dear friend and medical partner Dr. Denis Mukwege of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was announced the winner of the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament earlier this week, representing another well-deserved accolade for this courageous surgeon who has treated thousands of survivors of sexual violence in his country. This award will also likely draw renewed attention to the struggle against widespread sexual violence in the DRC and the need to end rape in conflict globally.
There is special poignancy in this award, which is named after another bold scientist who took great personal and professional risks to speak for silenced and persecuted individuals in the Soviet Union. Like Dr. Mukwege, Andrei Sakharov could justifiably have solely focused his work on nuclear physics. Instead, he utilized this expertise to warn about the dangers of proliferation and his own country’s development of weapons of mass destruction, and became an outspoken dissident defending thousands of prisoners of conscience. In speaking truth from their respective scientific endeavors, both Sakharov and Mukwege became seized with the underlying human rights challenges facing their societies. They channeled their eloquent voices to the global causes of human rights and justice. While working doggedly to end violence and oppression in their own countries, they also joined international movements for change, and lent their voices to campaigns for victims of violence thousands of miles away. Sakharov paid the price by spending years under house arrest and internal exile. Dr. Mukwege has endured a terrifying assassination attempt and continued insecurity.
But just like Sakharov, Dr. Mukwege will not be silenced, and as his work becomes more widely recognized and lauded, even those who seek to muzzle his voice may come to view him as a national treasure.
Two weeks ago, my colleague, Karen Naimer, and I joined colleagues of Physicians for Human Rights at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, where – under Dr. Mukwege’s leadership – survivors of rape, including new cases of very young children, receive medical care, counseling, and services to support their access to justice. The setting with courtyards and gardens seems like a haven from the brutal conflicts surrounding them in this war-ravaged part of eastern DRC.
The presence of a new medical examination room specially designed for children, a state-of the-art CT scanner that can help document internal injuries, and an impressive new facility for training women in business skills and psycho-social recovery all demonstrated the vision of this pioneering doctor and his growing staff of trained surgeons, gynecologists, nurses, and social workers whom we are so privileged to partner with. Panzi Hospital’s holistic approach can serve as a model not only for the DRC, but for care and prevention of sexual violence globally.
But Dr. Mukwege will be the first to acknowledge that we have only just begun the monumental effort to prevent the brutal sexual violence that tears apart communities, destroys bodies and minds, and continues with impunity in so many corners of the globe. As he has stated over and over, medical care for victims of rape must be accompanied by justice and peacebuilding and a commitment to ending the shame, stigma, and social ostracism resulting from this horrific violation. And the underlying causes of the violence, including endemic gender inequalities and discrimination as well as unchecked militarization, are areas that physicians like Dr. Mukwege recognize they must also speak to as part of their professional obligations to support the health and well-being of their communities. This prize recognizes not just Dr. Mukwege’s daily work to heal survivors, but also his tireless efforts to deepen and widen the conversation and prevent sexual violence in the future.
Congratulations, Dr. Mukwege.