Denis Mukwege & Sexual Violence in Conflict

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. 

Listen to Dr. Mukwege’s amazing speech and read more about his efforts and work here. Read more about The Mukwege Foundation and the wonderful work they do.

Noble Peace Prize Awarded to Nadia Murad & Denis Mukwege

In the same week as Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault case, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege were awarded the Nobel Peace prize in recognition of their efforts to end sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.

To recognise their work is to recognise the fight against sexual violence everywhere.

Sexual violence in warfare is not random – it is a tactic, and the reality of that is terrifying. Countless communities have been destroyed across the world and the perpetrators often walk free. But Nadia Murad and Dr Denis Mukwege are examples of those who cannot and will not stay silent on this issue.

Nadia Murad grew up in the Sinjar region of Northern Iraq, which was attacked and occupied by Isis in 2014. The people of the region – the Yazidi – have been very heavily persecuted.

Nadia’s commitment and determination to spreading awareness of sexual violence in warfare comes from her own incredibly harrowing experience.

She was captured by Isis and kept as a sex slave. However, she managed to escape, and despite everything she is determined to tell her story. Even though it means she has to relive the trauma of her experience, she continues to show her face to the world:

“Whereas the majority of women who escaped refused to be named, Ms. Murad insisted that she be identified and photographed, and her advocacy helped to persuade the United States State Department to recognize the genocide of her people at the hands of the terrorist group,” reported the New York Times

By doing this, she is showing that she has not only survived, but is now a voice and champion for many women who have suffered like her. Yazidi people deserve a voice, women deserve a voice and Nadia Murad is yelling out to make her voice heard. Nadia is the second youngest recipient of the award – Malala Yousafzai was only 17 when she received it in 2014.

In her autobiography, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State, Murad writes: I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine.”

Dr Denis Mukwege is a gynaecologist specialising in treating women who have been victims of rape in Democratic Republic of Congo – a country which has endured decades of violence and conflict. In 2012, during a speech at the UN, Dr Mukwege criticised the government of DR Congo for not doing enough to stop what he described as “an unjust war that has used violence against women and rape as a strategy of war.”

Only a month later, he was targeted by gunmen in his home, and subsequently fled to Europe. It was only after a group of Congolese women raised funds to pay for his return trip home that Dr Mukwege retuned to DR Congo.

“After that gesture, I couldn’t really say no. And also, I am myself determined to help fight these atrocities, this violence….My life has had to change, since returning. I now live at the hospital and I take a number of security precautions, so I have lost some of my freedom,” he told the BBC 2013.

According to Dr Mukwege, sexual violence in war and armed conflict is “not a women question; it’s a humanity question, and men have to take responsibility to end it…It’s not an Africa problem. In Bosnia, Syria, Liberia, Colombia, you have the same thing.”

To end sexual violence we need more men like Dr Mukwege – his skill and care in what he does has changed the lives of so many.

It is clear that once he saw the horrors and atrocities being committed he could not forget them. But we need more men in his position, and higher, who want to stop this. You should not have to see the trauma first hand to know that sexual violence as a tool of war has to be stopped.

Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege have achieved so much already, and having their amazing work and bravery acknowledged is a significant step forward.