Congo-Kinshasa: Congolese Doctor Honored for His Work to Help Rape Victims

Despite threats to his personal safety, Denis Mukwege continues to help women victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is one of the recipients of the 2013 Right Livelihood Award.

It was October 25, 2012. A group of heavily armed men forced their way into the house of a Congolese doctor just as he was returning home. One of the guards tried to warn him and was shot dead. The doctor escaped unharmed. No one was ever arrested for the attack. The target was Denis Mukwege, head of the Panzi Hospital in the university city of Bukavu in eastern DRC. He is a gynecological surgeon and daily treats female victims of sexual violence. He has repeatedly spoken out against the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. By doing so, he clearly made several enemies.

For his work Mukwege has been now honored with a Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize). The announcement by the RLA Foundation in Stockholm was greeted with great joy by Mukwege's friends and colleagues back home.

Therese Mema from the Commission for Justice and Peace in the archdiocese of Bukavu praised Mukwege as a tremendous source of help and support for rape victims. "He stands by them, gives them all the advice they need but himself remains modest," she said. "That is why we are delighted that the whole world is now honoring his work."

Being there for others

The 58-year-old sees his work as a vocation, the inspiration for which came from his father, a Pentecostal minister. "He gave me the gift of being there for others," Mukwege told DW in 2009 when he was awarded the Olaf Palme Prize.

After studying medicine in neighboring Burundi, Mukwege first worked in a hospital in the small town of Lemera in the rural area of South Kivu. He was shocked by the number of women who died every day, many of them while giving birth. "That motivated me to specialize in the treatment of women," Muwege said. He went on to study gynecology and obstetrics in France.

When he returned to Congo, still called Zaire at that time, Mukwege found himself confronted by new challenges. In the mid-90s Lemera was at the center of the region affected by the Congo conflict. It was totally destroyed in 1996. The various rebel groups as well as army soldiers increasingly used rape as a weapon of war.

With international support Mukwege launched a new project, the Panzi Hospital, in the regional capital Bukavu. The hospital quickly made a name for itself, especially for its gynecological department. Mukwege and his colleagues treated women and girls from the entire province who were at the mercy of the warring parties in the villages where they lived.

Women at the core of society

"It is the women who keep Congolese society alive," Mukwege said. "You only need to walk through the streets to see that is the women who do the most work in society." They were the ones who supported the next generation, for example, by earning the money for their children to go to school, he said, and that was why it was the women who were the first target of the rebels.

Mukwege has long been more than just a doctor, he is also a vocal advocate of women's rights in DRC and has set up programs for psychological counselling and legal aid for rape victims.

He wants to seize the problem by the roots and condemns the battle for control of the country's natural resources by both the government and the rebels. Without international pressure, nothing will happen, he says. "Locking up a rebel doesn't change anything. If you lock one up today, another will be born tomorrow."

In September 2012 Mukwege made a strong speech to the UN Security Council in which he condemned impunity for mass rape in the DRC and criticized the years of inaction by the international community and the Congolese government over massacres in the Kivu region. One month later the attempt was made on his life. Mukwege fled to Europe with his wife and two children.

Cooperation with German medical institute

But he could not stop thinking about the suffering of the Congolese people. Also, women's organisations enouraged him to return and offered to provide protection for him round the clock. Less then three months after his departure, Mukwege was back.

He now lives permanently in the Panzi Hospital where he feels safest. He has received many awards for his work and is a member of the French Legion of Honor, the highest award the country can give.

The news that Mukwege has now also been awarded the Right Livelihood Award was welcomed by his German cooperation partner Gisela Schneider who heads the German Institute for Medical Mission (DIfäM).

The institute has worked closely with Mukwege for more than 10 years and provides support for his hospital and medical training in DRC. Schneider, who visited Mukwege in DRC four weeks ago, is overjoyed. "It's an excellent decision," she told DW. "A person is being honored who is really giving his all for justice and peace."

Mukwege shares the 2013 Right Livelihood Award Prize money of 230,000 euros ($312,000) with three other recipients. The award ceremony will be held on December 2 in Stockholm.

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