This column originally appeared in The Huffington Post:
Systemic mass rapes of innocent civilians, deployed as a weapon of war remains almost inconceivable to Western audiences. In Congo, there are 48 rapes per hour of girls and women aged 15-49, according to a study published by the American Journal of Public Health in 2011. This does not include girls younger than 15, or women older than 49. Nor does it include the rape of boys and men, which occurs with terrifying regularity. The United Nations refers to Congo as the “rape capital of the world.”
Marauding militias foment evil in their pursuit to control Congo’s vast resources of tin, tantalum, tungsten, copper, cobalt, and gold. The profitable “conflict mineral” trade is lucrative. These raw resources are smelted, processed and critical components in virtually every electronic device and even the batteries in electric and hybrid cars. Mass rapes paralyze and devastate communities. Men, women, and children are enslaved, then forced to extract the minerals under threat of torture, rape, and death. The vicious cycle creates a strategic weapon of war. The survivors bear unimaginable injuries. Guns, machetes, or branches, become implements of rape causing traumatic fistulas. Survivors are often shunned by their husbands, families, and communities as fistula often includes the leaking of urine and or feces through the vaginal canal.
Bukavu, a city situated on Lake Kivu, is home to Dr. Denis Mukwege. The son of a Pentecostal minister, he is a gynecological surgeon and savior of women suffering from fistula. The doctor and his colleagues have performed more than 30,000 surgeries since he founded the Panzi Hospital in 1998. A recipient of numerous human rights awards, Dr. Mukwege addressed the United Nations last year. He called on the international community to focus, and condemned the impunity of those commit the violence – as well as Presidents Kagame and Kabila, of Rwanda and Congo respectively, for allowing it to continue. Kabila feels the pressure mounting as word of Mukwege’s heroic, tireless work spreads beyond the Great Lakes Region of Africa to the halls of academia, human rights advocates, and friendly diplomatic partners.
Just a month later he returned to Congo, he narrowly survived assassination. Gunmen held his daughters against their will. A battle ensued and though Dr. Mukwege and his daughters survived, his bodyguard died in the attack. The assassins forced Mukwege into exile for a short time but his will only grew stronger. He returned to the Panzi Hospital and resumed his practice.
He continued, and continues, to be outspoken about ending the conflict. Addressing the needs of the women he treats, as well as their families is urgent to him. Nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Mukwege has drawn the attention of the medical industry, human rights advocates, and those concerned with conflict mitigation and diplomacy alike.
Naama Haviv, a scholar with a MA from Clark University’s Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, observed, “There is a reason the women of Congo promised to protect and support Dr. Mukwege after the assassination attempt. He is their best chance not just for survival, but for restoration of their families, communities and dignity.”
Earlier this week, he visited the University of Southern California, hosted by the USC Institute of Global Health and Jewish World Watch. We spoke via telephone about his work and the expansion of Panzi Hospital’s mission to include more than just medical services.
“What we are doing is creating an environment for women to know they do not need to feel ashamed. To give them back their dignity, give them back their physical and mental health, give them the power to know they are strong.” Mukwege told me.
“There are four pillars to our approach. First, we provide the necessary medical treatments. Second, we must show them [the survivors and fistula patients] it is possible to recover physically and mentally. We now have psychologists and social services, to help them adjust. The third pillar, we focus on reintegration. We help them understand their economic capacity, help them develop new skills so they feel strong enough to return to their communities, earn an income, and take care of their children. Finally, we now have a team of lawyers to help create a file for every victim. We must stand for justice.” When I asked what justice meant for these women, beyond traditional notions of prosecutions and convictions, he continued, “Most of these women, after treatment, they become leaders in their own community. They are the ones who will save Congo. What they have faced is not just rape. It is a problem for all humanity.”
Through the Panzi Foundation, Dr. Mukwege’s vision is evident in the programs at Maison Dorcas. Literacy and vocational training are available, with on-site childcare. This transitional home after the women have completed their inpatient medical treatment is an oasis amid a violent, persistent conflict.
Dr. Mukwege is a hero among heroes, as evidenced by other nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize. The story of 16 year old Malala Yousafzai, an outspoken advocate for education who narrowly survived assassination by members of the Taliban inspires. Malala reminds us heroes come in many – often unexpected – packages.
Alfred Nobel‘s will instructed the prizes be awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” Unlike the years when winners, even nominees, were controversial, it seems 2013 is a return to that spirit. Dr. Denis Mukwege is a noble man forging a path towards peace in Congo. If the fates see fit, he may also be a Nobel man.