I recently had the honor of attending a speech by a truly inspirational person, 2018 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Denis Mukwege.
Dr. Mukwege has devoted his life to the rights and health of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For more than two decades conflict has been tearing the country apart, and over those years rape and sexual violence have been used extensively as weapons of war. Sexual violence has been used throughout history and continues to be used to this day as a weapon of destruction (anyone can be a victim, although it is most often women and girls).
Dr. Mukwege recognized not only the health-related consequences, but also the psychological and social devastation, that sexual violence in conflict was causing in the DRC. As his country continued to go through turmoil, his medical practice in the city of Bukavu turned into a refuge center.
Thousands of sexual violence victims targeted by armed militias came to him. Women and girls of all ages sought his help.
During his talk, he showed the audience an image of a very young child who was brought to his practice after being brutally raped and disfigured. It is an image I will not forget for a long time. What I realized at that moment is that our emotions of disgust and anger around sexual violence in conflict are minuscule in comparison with what women and children have gone through and the pain they have experienced.
In 2012, Dr. Mukwege gave a speech in front of the UN assembly in which he denounced the violence against women and girls in his country. Shortly after, his home was attacked by armed men who held his family at gunpoint and killed one of his closest friends inside his home, and in front of his friend’s own children.
I can still hear the doctor’s voice, coloured by sadness and grief, as he told this story. His emotion was so raw, as though the tragic incident had just happened.
After the attack, Dr. Mukwege and his family were forced to flee the country, leaving the women of the DRC behind. Their vulnerability did not prevent them from taking action.
Dr. Mukwege relayed the women’s courage, strength and persistence in finding creative ways of getting their doctor back.
They first wrote to authorities but received no response. People urged them to give up hope that he would ever return. Dr. Mukwege shared the women’s words:
“We took a decision, we [are] going each Friday to sell fruit and vegetables and bring the money here at the hospital until we get the total amount to buy the ticket for him to come back…”
“If no one wants to give him security, we are thousand[s] of women…each night, 24 hours, we will get 25 women around the house and we will be around him so if someone want[s] really to kill him [he will] have to kill 25 women before killing him.”
Dr. Mukwege was so moved by their efforts and bravery that he returned to Congo in the midst of all the chaos and the threats to his life. The admiration he had for these women overshadowed all his doubts: “This was very strong…when I was treating them, I could say that they were weak but there, I was weak, and women were strong, and they brought me back in Congo,” he told us.
I had tears in my eyes as I listened. I don’t think there was a single individual in the room that day who was not moved by Dr. Mukwege’s story.
He portrayed the strength of the women of the DRC through his words. I believe that women worldwide are the epitome of strength and resilience and Dr. Mukwege’s story clearly portrays that resilience.
It is from these very convictions that we at the Swedish Organization for Global Health – along with so many others across the world – work towards achieving our goals and aspirations for women’s health, safety and empowerment worldwide.
At times when we feel utterly defeated and consumed with our own worries, when our own uncertainties take over our thoughts and conquer our emotions, it is people like Dr. Mukwege and the brave women of Congo who put life back into perspective. We are a force when we come together! We can, without a doubt, overcome all obstacles and injustices.