Rape is a weapon of inexplicably debased warfare. Bodies, minds, souls of victims scarred and torn, as aching testaments to the moral bankruptcy of vilest oppression. The exceptional moral courage of those who stand against this inhumanity is to be revered. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Dr. Denis Mukwege fights to save the dignity of girls and women savagely raped by Eastern Congolese militias.
The DRC is a troubled space, with a long history of instability and armed conflict. Effectiveness of the rule of law, governance and democratic accountability and legitimacy are highly questionable. Armed groups are abundant, and in Eastern Congo, rape has been used for decades as an horrific means of terrorising civilians.
Dr. Mukwege runs the Panzi Hospital in Bakavu where he has treated tens of thousands of victims of sexual violence and war-time rape. He is not only a preeminent gynaecologist but is an internationally renowned campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner, speaking on gender violence issues to audiences around the world. On stage with actor and UN goodwill ambassador Emma Watson at an event hosted by the New York Times in London, Dr. Mukwege gave an emotional and intimate insight into his life and work in the DRC.
Dr. Mukwege’s account of the savagery of gang rape and the physical injuries inflicted on young girls and women was intensely chilling. Physically, life changing genital injuries from blunt force trauma, gunshot wounds, knives, machetes and burns were coupled with the psychological humiliation of being raped in front of husbands, children, siblings and community members. Rape victims ranged from babies to women over 80 years of age. Dr. Mukwege was visibly shaken describing the emotional challenge of explaining to young patients that they would be left permanently incontinent, due to serious vaginal and anal injury.
The barbarity and scale of outrages in Eastern DRC almost defies expression. Dr. Mukwege pointed out however that it is not only a problem in the DRC or in local culture. Indeed, rape camps in Bosnia were a sickening aspect of the Balkans war. Systemised rape was used in the Rwandan genocide, and notoriously Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, a former Rwandan government minister was implicated and convicted for organising mass murder and rape of Tutsis. Islamic State kidnapped and sexually abused thousands of Yazidis. The Japanese enslaved Korean women in disgracefully euphemistic ‘comfort stations’ in the 1940s. Conquering armies have raped and pillaged throughout history, and the security of women remains a subject of critical concern. An atrocious lack of protection, justice and reparation for victims is palpable.
From the DRC to the #MeToo Movement, Ms. Watson drew parallels with contemporary post-colonial and feminist debates. Dr. Mukwege affirmed the importance of global initiatives to confront sexual violence and particularly called for men to speak out and challenge any remnants of acceptability of female subjugation.
Within the culture of the DRC, rape victims can experience difficulties reintegrating and finding acceptance in their communities. Many rapes likely go unreported, as victims fear ostracization and humiliation. Debased and stripped of personal and community identity, victims suffer deep physical and psychological wounds. Asked how women in these torrid conditions of despair could be reached and consoled, Dr. Mukwege said, “give them love.” Unconditional love was the ultimate form of non-judgemental acceptance, helping victims take the first steps to rediscovering personal dignity, identity and enduring the difficult journey to becoming survivors.
Dr. Mukwege’s work has been recognised internationally, and in addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, he has been awarded the French Legion of Honour and numerous accolades. Despite international aplomb, Dr. Mukwege’s vociferous condemnation of barbarous militias and corrupt Congolese politics almost cost him his life. He was targeted for assassination in 2012 and was lucky to survive. After temporarily moving to Europe, he later returned to Panzi hospital in the DRC to continue his work.
Moved by Dr. Mukwege’s account of the suffering of rape victims in the DRC, I encourage you to read further about the work of the Mukwege Foundation. For a broad perspective of the key issues I recommend the book “Rape During Civil War” by Dara Kay Cohen from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.