This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
This month marks the anniversary of a terrible event: the October 2012 attempt on Dr. Denis Mukwege's life at his home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I had just met Dr. Mukwege the previous month following an unforgettable speech at the United Nations, in which he drew attention to the sexual violence crisis in his home country of the DRC and elsewhere. He chastised the international community for its fear and lack of courage in working to end to the practice of using women and girls for sexual slavery and as weapons of war in the DRC. Dr. Mukwege – founder and medical director of Panzi Hospital in eastern DRC – talked about how, having treated tens of thousands of girls and women who were raped in the brutal conflict zone, he could no longer repair their damaged bodies without simultaneously advocating for protection, peace, and justice.
Over the past two weeks, I had the privilege of spending additional time in New York with Dr. Mukwege, who is not only my personal hero, but also a dear friend, colleague, and partner of Physicians for Human Rights. Since 2011, we have worked closely with him, his hospital staff, and other partners in the DRC to improve the forensic documentation of evidence of sexual violence in order to end the vicious cycle of mass rape that is fueled by a culture of utter impunity in the DRC. Once again, I was reminded why he is not just an extraordinary physician, but also a remarkable advocate for peace and women's rights.
Dr. Mukwege told us about the women and girls, including young children, that he and his colleagues treat at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. Many of them have been raped by gangs, brutally stabbed or shot in the genitals, with the intention of causing permanent harm to their bodies and lives. The doctors and nurses do all they can, often with great success – restoring their ability to control their bodily functions and – when possible – the potential to conceive children. And despite these heroic efforts, these women sometimes return to their home villages only to be raped again – victims of a cruel weapon of war.
Dr. Mukwege has courageously continued his work despite the assassination attempt that took the life of his colleague and bodyguard Joseph Bizimana. Many believe the violent assault was prompted by his U.N. speech, in which he condemned "the deafening silence and the lack of courage of the international community," as well as the lack of political will in his country. This month, Dr. Mukwege has been in the United States to meet with leaders at the highest levels of the United Nations and the U.S. government, and has also humbly accepted several awards, including the 2013 Civil Courage Prize. He dedicates these awards to the courageous women of the DRC. I can't think of anyone more deserving of such an honor. He risks his own life to perform lifesaving medical work and provide a sanctuary for the appalling number of women and girls in the eastern DRC who have been the target of such crimes. His tireless advocacy has been crucial to ensuring that survivors have access not only to medical care, but also to justice and reparations, so that those who commit these brutal acts are held accountable.
The numbers are staggering. Since opening in 1999, Panzi Hospital has treated nearly 40,000 survivors of sexual violence. Dr. Mukwege doesn't like to talk about the numbers; instead, he talks about his patients as brave survivors, as only a caring physician could. He wonders when the international community will draw a "red line" for the women of the Congo and muster the political will to put an end to this brutal weapon of war that has plagued his country for over 15 years.
Despite the seemingly unimaginable situations Dr. Mukwege sees on a daily basis in his work, he is an optimist. Like him, I firmly believe that collectively we can work to address and prevent such human rights violations. As part of the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict, PHR is calling on political leaders – in the DRC and beyond – to take steps to prevent rape in conflict and protect civilians and rape survivors. We are calling for the full implementation of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework Agreement for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the region signed in Addis Ababa in 2013 and for the arrest of those indicted by the International Criminal Court for mass atrocities, including mass rape, in the region. Congolese President Joseph Kabila has also pledged to appoint a special representative to combat sexual violence and the recruitment of child soldiers. While an encouraging development, we must now hold President Kabila to this promise.
Just as important is that clinicians like Dr. Mukwege, who bear witness to these human rights abuses, are protected. As gynecological surgeons, he and his colleagues are uniquely skilled to repair the bodies of girls and women who have experienced horrific physical injuries, while also helping to heal their psyches and rebuild the collective well-being of their communities. As a physician and a tenacious leader, Dr. Mukwege has also had the courage to denounce the perpetrators of these crimes and the governments that enable them. All of us, as human beings, can help amplify his powerful call for peace and justice.
As Dr. Mukwege said in his U.N. speech in 2012, "the courage of women victims of sexual violence in the Eastern Congo will, in the end, overcome this evil." But let's not allow these brave women and men to stand alone. As the Congolese proverb so poignantly reminds us: "A single tree doesn't make a forest."