Dr Denis Mukwege. Photo: Lisa Thanner

My visit to Dr Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital

Essays 11.07.2022

By Stina Thanner, Programme Manager at Right Livelihood

18-year-old Neema Chibalonza came to Panzi Hospital 15 months ago. I met her at Dorcas, the home for girls that, through the Panzi Foundation, helps rape survivors rebuild their lives by providing housing, therapy and education. When Neema came to Panzi Hospital, she was suicidal. Many women and girls who come to Panzi have life-threatening injuries. They have lost the support of family and friends due to the stigmatization of rape. Many, like Neema, have nowhere to return to after giving birth.

Neema found help at Panzi. Neema’s story is one of extraordinary struggle and hope, and those two seem foundational to Panzi Hospital. She received psychological support for her depression and gave birth to a baby girl. Together, they moved into housing provided by the Panzi Foundation.

I spent one week visiting the Hospital in Bukavu, a city in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, lying on the south-western side of Lake Kivu. The city has around 1 million inhabitants, one of them being 2013 Right Livelihood Laureate Dr Denis Mukwege, the founder of Panzi Hospital.

Dr Denis Mukwege and Stina Thanner. Photo: Lisa Thanner

Dr Mukwege is a well-known and respected person in Bukavu, as illustrated by his colossal billboard portrait in the centre of a square. At the same time, he is also hated and threatened. Dr Mukweges calls for justice and an end to using rape in warfare, which has put his life in danger.

I first met Dr Mukwege in 2017 at a seminar in Sweden. His kindness and humour struck me: a well-respected doctor, a pastor, but still human and down to earth. When I met him five years later at Panzi, surrounded by the green oasis he and his team had created, I was again struck by his warmth. He told me about his work and how it all comes down to justice – justice for the survivors, the girls, and the communities scarred by the war.

Dr Mukwege founded Panzi Hospital in 1999. Since then, more than 85,000 women have been treated by the Hospital: women who had survived rape or had birth-related complications.

Dr Mukwege received the Right Livelihood Award in 2013 “for his courageous work healing women survivors of war-time sexual violence and speaking up about its root causes.”

“The Award was important as it brought awareness to the situation for women in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” he told me. “I’m sure people in Sweden and many other countries are starting to understand that we should do more for women in Congo.”

With a smile, Dr Mukwege continued, “and for me, this Award was one of the awards which gave more awareness to the situation in Congo.”

The Hospital’s work goes beyond birth. They work with a holistic model. Maria Hogenäs, a midwife from Sweden who has worked at Panzi for two years, told me about the importance of acceptance of the pregnancy. Many women and girls who are survivors of rape and pregnant by rape have difficulty accepting the pregnancy and the baby, leading to more complicated births and a higher risk that the mother would leave the newborn. Maria’s job is to help these women and girls from 8 months in their pregnancy through birth and support the connection after the birth.

I was part of a birthing class where ten girls were taught how their babies are placed in their uterus; they practised movements to help with the pain on pilates balls with oversized scarves around their hips. All these things can seem tiny but make an enormous difference. Women and girls who have lost the support of family and friends are at higher risk of leaving their babies and ending up as prostitutes or living on the streets. All these risks decrease through connecting with the baby and accepting their new family. Then the work continues to connect with the rest of the family.

Maria showed me the delivery section of the Hospital, where no one knew if the woman giving birth was a survivor of rape or not. The area consists of around ten beds separated by blue draperies. As part of the holistic model, Maria and her team have built a separate room for first-time births, a small room with a bed, tools to help with movements, like the pilates ball, scarves, and a small terrasse. This room didn’t cost much to build but has made a significant difference for women giving birth for the first time. Here they can be alone, surrounded only by the people they choose. They have the comfort of peace, greenery outside and not too many people running in and out.

Steps for equality and justice have also been taken. One thing Maria talked about was the importance of who is in the room together with the woman. They have understood that if the husband is with the mother in the delivery room, he will understand the process she is going through, which can lead to him taking better care of her when they are home, babysitting the baby once in a while.

Neema named her baby girl Merci, and now she is hoping she could soon leave Dorcas with Merci. Being at Panzi, meeting midwives and women is a constant oscillation between the feeling of despair and the feeling of hope. The situation for women in the DRC is quite terrible, and the help and support from Panzi are incredible. Dr Mukwege writes in his latest book that he sees how the violence is increasing in numbers and brutality, but his hope comes from the survivors and the women – and I can only agree.

About the Author: Stina Thanner works as a Programme Manager at Right Livelihood’s Stockholm Office. Her focus is on the development of the Foundation’s support work with Laureates and maintaining contacts with Swedish civil society. Moreover, Stina coordinates both digital and physical events with Laureates around the Award Presentation.

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