For his courageous work healing women survivors of war-time sexual violence and speaking up about its root causes.
Dr Denis Mukwege is a leading gynaecologist and global campaigner against sexual violence as a weapon of war. As founder and chief surgeon of the Panzi hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), he and his colleagues have treated more than 50.000 survivors of sexual violence and helped them build a future. Despite constant death threats, Dr Mukwge continues to heal women and speak up against sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Decades of work at Panzi hospital has made Dr Mukwege the leading specialist in treating survivors of wartime sexual violence, including rape. Together with colleagues, Dr Muwege has developed a holistic model to help survivors of sexual violence. Besides medical care including specialised gynaecological treatment, Panzi hospital offers psychological, legal and economic support.
In the face of attacks on his life, Dr Denis Mukwege has remained an outspoken human rights defender and champion of gender equality. He is tirelessly raising awareness about the realities of the Congolese war and has brought the topic of global trade with conflict minerals before the UN and the international community. In 2019 Dr Mukwge received the Nobel Peace Prize together with Nadia Murad.
Denis Mukwege was born on 1 March 1955 in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He studied medicine in Burundi and started practising at the Christian Hospital at Lemera in South Kivu in the Eastern DRC. Shocked by the appalling difficulties of Congolese women in childbirth, he decided to specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology. After completing his studies in France, he returned to South Kivu in 1989.
The Panzi Hospital
In 1996 the hospital at Lemera was completely destroyed in the civil war. With the help of international aid organisations, Dr Mukwege then founded the Panzi Hospital in the Panzi neighbourhood of Bukavu and became its manager and chief surgeon.
The Panzi hospital is best known for its gynaecological skills, including fistula repair. Dr Mukwege has been training staff to help with these complications, in collaboration with, among others, the Harvard Medical School and the Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa which was founded by 2009 Laureate Catherine Hamlin.
From 1999 on, Dr Mukwege began to see a new level of extremely cruel sexualised violence in the Eastern DRC. He began seeing patients whose entire vagina and rectum had been destroyed with knives or other objects. Since then, Dr Mukwege and his team at Panzi hospital have treated around 50,000 victims of sexual violence. Compared to other conditions treated at the hospital, these cause the biggest psychological and surgical challenges. Dr Mukwege has reported that it happens that a woman he has treated successfully is raped again and comes back to the hospital, with no more chance for the surgeon to repair her reproductive organs once again.
A big problem in the DRC is that perpetrators enjoy a large degree of impunity, even if they can be identified.“The perpetrators of these crimes destroy life at its entry point. The women can no longer have children. Often they get infected with AIDS and will spread the disease. Their men are humiliated. So the perpetrators destroy the entire social fabric of their enemies, their communities, their future generations, without even killing the woman,” Dr Denis Mukwege has said.
Reintegration and support
Besides medical support, Panzi tries to provide its patients psychological counselling, legal advice, and economical support. In addition, Mukwege has set up the Panzi Foundation. It has several full-time employees working out of the Panzi hospital premises. The foundation provides assistance and legal clinics for survivors of sexual violence around a number of legal topics such as heritage, family law, divorce, adoption. The foundation also offers training in women’s rights, training of community leaders, workshops to promote better health. They also work to end early marriage.
Urging the international community to bring an end to the conflict in Eastern DRC
Recognizing that his medical work treats the victims but cannot prevent new atrocities, Dr Mukwege has been travelling the world and giving countless interviews to alert the international community about the horrors of the conflict in Eastern DRC, addressing the root causes of the Congolese conflict.
In a speech at the United Nations on 25 September 2012, Mukwege called for unanimous condemnation of the rebel groups responsible for acts of sexualised violence, and concrete actions with regard to member states who support them from near or afar.
Assassination attempt and current situation
One month after Mukwege’s speech at the UN, five armed men in civilian clothes slipped into his house in Bukavu while he was away. When he returned home, they attacked him, but one of his staff, Joseph Bizimana, distracted the murderers and was killed by them. Bizimana saved Mukwege’s life. The local authorities claim they found the murderers, but no trial was held, and none of the witnesses was called to testify. Dr Mukwege decided to escape to Europe with his wife and two daughters.
In his absence, local women’s groups protested against the attack to the authorities, started to collect money for a flight ticket for Mukwege to come home, and promised him they would ensure his security by taking turns to guard him, with groups of 20 women volunteering in shifts around the clock. Moved by their courage and support, Mukwege returned to Bukavu in January 2013. Driving from the airport to the hospital, he was met by cheering crowds. Today, he lives and works day and night at the Panzi Hospital, under heavy security.