This Doctor Is Helping Congo’s Thousands of Rape Survivors

Denis Mukwege has treated more than 40,000 women, despite death threats and attempts on his life.

Denis Mukwege, founder of and medical director at Panzi Hospital, attends a celebration on the hospital campus with survivors and patients. (Photo: Torleif Svensson/Getty Images)

Sep 14, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

“Rape,” says Denis Mukwege, “is a cheap, brutal weapon of war.”

Mukwege, founder of Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is uniquely qualified to make that assessment. The grinding, 20-years-and-counting war in his homeland is often called the worst since World War II, having claimed an estimated 5 million lives. It has also earned the Central African nation another horrific distinction: A senior U.N. official calls it the “rape capital of the world.” Mukwege, 60, works to heal those victims coming out of a tsunami of sexual violence.

Since 1999, Panzi Hospital has treated the gynecological injuries of some 40,000 women, half of them survivors of sexual violence. Last year alone, the hospital’s project on sexual violence took in 2,516 people; among them, 82 were girls under 10. In the process, Mukwege has become a world-famous expert in repairing internal injuries caused by rape.

Recognizing that it takes more than just medical care to recover from sexual trauma, the hospital also provides therapy, temporary housing, counseling, job training, and other services to help women get their lives back together. Mukwege’s work has been lauded by organizations from the Clinton Foundation to the United Nations, and last year he won the European Union’s highest humanitarian honor, the Sakharov Prize.

Mukwege grew up in Bukavu, a city of 1 million on the DRC’s border with Rwanda.

“I was inspired to become a doctor in my childhood, when my father, who was a Pentecostal minister, took me with him to visit a child of about my age, who was sick,” Mukwege tells TakePart via email from Bukavu. “Before we left, he prayed for the child. I asked him why he did not give him medicine as he does for me when he prays for me. He responded that he could not provide medicine to all in need, as he was not a doctor. So, that day, I told my father that I would become a doctor in order to heal and provide medicine in addition to the prayers he and I would be making for the sick.”

With support from foreign donors, Mukwege trained in medicine in Europe. He returned home aiming to go into pediatrics but was shocked by the high rate of maternal and infant mortality. Shortly thereafter, he founded Panzi Hospital—then just a small house in a cornfield—with the aim of providing more women access to delivery care and obstetric procedures.

Among his first patients was a woman who had been savagely raped in a nearby neighborhood. “After raping her, the attackers shot [her in the] vagina,” says Mukwege. “She arrived at the hospital with her genital organs in pieces. We did not know if she could survive. We performed all possible surgeries on her, attempting to repair what we could, and the woman survived.”

Dr. Denis Mukwege greets women from the Survivors of Sexual Violence Program at Panzi Hospital. (Photo: Endre Vestvik)

Word spread quickly, and more rape victims started making their way to the hospital. “It has not abated since,” Mukwege says.

Mukwege has focused on fistula, both obstetric and traumatic, a condition that can be caused by prolonged or difficult labor, rape, or the unsanitary conditions in which many women displaced by the fighting have to give birth. It’s an especially cruel condition, causing the women’s organs to leak urine and feces. Many survivors’ husbands and families throw them out of their homes because of the smell and the stigma of having been raped, leaving them doubly victimized. Treating the condition requires complex surgery and long recovery times.

Whether because they have been rejected by their families or displaced by fighting or both, about half the women treated at Panzi Hospital have no home to return to after their treatment. That’s why the hospital offers transitional housing and other services to get them back on their feet.

According to U.N. estimates, soldiers with the Congolese army commit more than one-third of the rapes in the eastern part of the country, where Bukavu sits. Mukwege is not shy about drawing attention to this. In an interview this summer with The Guardian, he called the army’s troops “completely sick.”

“The line between perpetrator and victim can be very thin,” he elaborates. “Some current soldiers have a background as child soldiers. They were captured in their childhood, trained, and forced to pillage and commit unspeakable atrocities against their families, friends, or anybody. Now the Congo has an army and a police with many mentally unstable soldiers still eager to commit the worst atrocities imaginable.”

The outspokenness comes with considerable risk. In 2012, Mukwege arrived home one evening to find five armed men in his house, their weapons trained on his two daughters and a friend. The intruders shot and killed Mukwege’s security guard and fired at Mukwege. He threw himself on the ground, and the attackers took off in his car.

In recent years, the number of rapes in DRC has declined somewhat, but the epidemic is far from over. An investigation earlier this summer by The Guardian found that rapes by soldiers were continuing in eastern Congo—including rapes of children.

“In spite of the decrease, we receive new cases of rape in numbers that are still alarming. We meet the needs of all that we can, but the situation remains unacceptable, with over one rape with extreme violence per day,” Mukwege says. “There are many victims who perish from their wounds, infections, or pregnancy that never make it safely to our hospital or other hospitals because they remain in remote areas, suffering, not able to reach us—or because they do not know there is a place where they can receive care.”