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Story Publication logo March 14, 2014

Eastern Congo: A Doctor Treats Women in Wartime


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For two decades, the eastern Congo has been ravaged by civil war. Can a former U.S. senator help...

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Dr. Denis Mukwege at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. Image by Roger Svanell. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2014.

On a sunny Friday in late January, Dr. Denis Mukwege, the director of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, in the eastern Congo, stood inside a darkened room to preside over a grim PowerPoint. Mukwege, 55, is tall and grandfatherly in appearance, with the large and elegant hands that befit a surgeon. He wore a white laboratory coat and a matching shirt with a mandarin collar. His hospital is the foremost treatment center for victims of sexual violence in this part of Congo, which, since the mid-1990s, has suffered successive miasmas of violence as armed groups, often backed by neighboring countries, clash with Congolese forces and target civilians.

Bands of armed men operate with impunity over much of the territory, and they routinely harass and attack civilians, particularly women. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that as many as 1.8 million women in the country had been raped at some point in their lives — translating to roughly one rape every minute. For many victims, the Panzi Hospital is the only place to receive treatment for their injuries.

Mukwege, a gynecologist by training, has said before that "there is no medical solution" to the war in eastern Congo, and he has paid a personal price for his activism. In October 2012, he survived an assassination attempt — his bodyguard did not — that caused him to flee to Sweden. The investigation into the killing has stalled. But Mukwege returned to Bukavu in January 2013.

Mukwege's presentation detailed the careful statistics the hospital has collected about its patients. In 2010 and 2011, Panzi saw fewer and fewer victims of sexual violence turning up at its doors. But more came in 2012, the year a new rebel movement, called the M23, was created. As Human Rights Watch documented, the M23 not only recruited child soldiers and committed summary executions but also terrorized the population by raping women and girls.

That year, the hospital treated more than 1,300 victims of sexual violence; by 2013, the number exceeded 1,700. The patients have gotten younger, too. In 2010, 11 percent of rape victims were less than 18 years old; by 2013, that share had doubled. Sixty percent of the rapists were armed. "Since the M23 restarted the war, many other armed groups also started to fight," Mukwege said. "And when they were fighting, rape was always being used as a weapon of war."

Although the M23 was defeated in October, dozens of other militias still thrive. The armed groups that have surrendered since the fall of the M23, meanwhile, have not been reintegrated into society. Mukwege said that the programs run by the United Nations designed to bring former combatants back into the fold must include mental health treatment and social support. And the Congolese government, he argued, needs to hold perpetrators accountable — something it has been unwilling to do so far. Only then will the conflict really end, and only then will the threat they pose to Congolese women truly diminish. "We can't get peace," he said, "if we don't get justice."






Conflict and Peace Building


Conflict and Peace Building

Conflict and Peace Building

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