Rape in the Congo
In a conflict so long and brutal it’s been called “Africa’s world war,” sexual violence has become a weapon of mass destruction. Soldiers fighting to control eastern Congo’s vast mineral wealth—much of it indispensable to the manufacture of cell phones and other electronic devices—use sexual violence to terrorize and humiliate women as young as two and as old as 84, as well as their families and their communities. Physician Denis Mukwege, who has treated 21,000 victims of the savagery, is pleading with the world to take action
A Physician's Calling
His father was a minister, and so, in a sense, is Denis Mukwege. The tall, soft-spoken doctor directs the Panzi Hospital, in Bukavu in eastern Congo, where he specializes in the treatment of women who are victims of the sexual violence that since the 1990s has been part of the catastrophic civil wars in the Congo and Rwanda. He is one of the world’s leading experts on how to repair the internal physical damage caused by rape. Last fall, Mukwege received the 20th University of Michigan Raoul Wallenberg Medal. The award recognizes Mukwege’s efforts to focus global attention on the epidemic of sexual violence in his homeland.
The 13-year war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, centered mainly in eastern Congo, is the widest interstate war in modern African history. It has directly affected the lives of 50 million Congolese people. More people have died in eastern Congo and adjacent regions than in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur combined.
“The conflict has become a war against women,” according to a 2007 CNN report, “and the weapon used to destroy them, their families and whole communities, is rape.” Panzi Hospital is the frontline of this war. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in the last 13 years, and Mukwege has treated 21,000 of them, many more than once. Victims can be as young as two or as old as 84. Mukwege performs up to ten surgeries a day during his 18-hour workdays. He says that his patients often arrive at the hospital naked, bleeding, and with severely damaged reproductive organs.
“You know, they’re in deep pain. But it’s not just physical pain. It’s psychological pain that you can see. Here at the hospital, we’ve seen women who’ve stopped living,” Mukwege told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Many of the women he treats are blamed for what happened to them and then shunned because of fears they’ve contracted HIV or because their rapes were so violent they can no longer control their bodily functions.
Having once accompanied his preacher father on visits to parishioners, Mukwege views his own work as a calling. Despite its dangers and sorrows, he says he cannot abandon it. “I get my hope from the victims. When I see their strength, I say, how can I give up?”
Mukwege has been the recipient of several major awards, including the first African
of the Year Prize and the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights. In 2009
he received the Swedish Olaf Palme Prize for being “an admirable example of what courage,
persistency and enduring hope may accomplish for human rights and dignity in times
when these values seem the most distant.”
Article by Penny Schreiber, Wallenberg Executive Committee
Video from Denis Mukwege’s Visit to SPH:
The Cry of Thousands; A Conversation with Dr. Denis Mukwege
During his four-day visit to Ann Arbor last fall to accept the 2010 UM Wallenberg Medal, Congolese physician Denis Mukwege met with students, faculty, and staff from several UM units and schools, including SPH and the UM Center for Global Health. He spoke with Findings editor Leslie Stainton about the harrowing work he undertakes daily at his hospital in war-torn eastern Congo, where he treats the victims of sexual terror.
FINDINGS: You trained as an obstetrician, and yet in the past decade you’ve treated more than
20,000 women for traumatic injuries stemming from rape. Some of the women you’ve treated
have been raped two and three times. How do you reconcile yourself to having to do
this kind of work?
What I’m doing now is not “normal medicine.” It’s the result of unacceptable human barbarity. I would have liked to practice normal medicine—supporting women in childbirth, caring for premature newborns. I believe one could feel useful doing that. But this barbarity—the cruel destruction of women’s genitals, destroying the bladder, destroying the rectum, destroying the vagina —I wasn’t prepared for that.
How do you keep from sinking into despair?
We need to do our work, and in order to do so, we must have strategies to protect ourselves. In the beginning, I listened to the women. Each time a woman began to tell me, “I was raped, I was tortured, they killed my father, they killed my mother, they killed my entire family, and afterwards ten of them raped me, and then they burned my vagina,” I listened. But I quickly realized that it affected my ability to help them. So I got to a point where I was doing surgery without asking how this happened. You have to protect yourself. That’s why we have a multidisciplinary team with psychologists and social workers, so that we can take care of everyone emotionally.
Do you ever get used to it?
One does not get used to the suffering. I always have the impression that each day it’s a new kind of suffering.
Coming to a country like the United States to accept an award must prompt a mixture
of feelings. It’s as if we inhabit separate worlds.
It’s true that we’re in two worlds, but actually we’re connected. How many Americans have a cell phone? [see story at right]. How many Americans have a laptop? Do they know that those laptops are made with minerals, 70 percent of which come from the place where these women are tortured and are forced to flee their villages so that people can have access to these minerals? We can pretend to be indifferent, but I believe it’s our role as human beings to say, “Do I accept this physical connection?” These women pay with their lives so that you can communicate with your cell phone. They don’t know why they’re being tortured this way. They don’t have cell phones, they don’t have laptops, they don’t have electronic gadgets. But they suffer the consequences of what we have.
What can Americans do?
You are a worldwide power. You can say no to things. It’s a strength that shouldn’t be ignored. If the American population were to say, “We can’t understand why almost a half-million women are destroyed, raped, tortured, and mutilated without any reaction from the world,” I’m sure that a change could happen. I’ve been performing surgeries for ten years, and now I’m operating on the children born from these rapes. I no longer believe in treating the consequences. I think that we must treat the causes. If we treat the causes, it will stop.
How do you treat the causes?
You know, this also happened in Bosnia, but since Bosnia was on Europe’s doorstep, and Europe was ashamed, it didn’t last so long. When it happens in Africa, people say, “It’s cultural. It’s African. It’s far away. Why do they do that?” In Bosnia the world said, “This isn’t acceptable.” And it stopped. If the world reacts like this for Congo, it will stop.
What’s happening to the children who are born from these rapes?
The majority of these children are born of women who have lost everything, mothers who no longer have a family, and the only relationship that remains is these poor children without lineage. They are called children of snakes, children of genocide, and I think that they realize that they aren’t loved, that they don’t have any family. When they become adults, it will be serious. It’s very dangerous not to know one’s own lineage, to be rejected everywhere.
What does the Wallenberg Medal mean to you?
For me, this medal represents the cry of hundreds, of thousands of women who live without hope, who are rejected by their families, by their communities, these thousands of women who have lost their genitals, who have never experienced childhood, these child mothers who have never known their own femininity, all because of human barbarity. This medal is a call to all of us. If, after the Holocaust, the world could say “never again,” why is the world indifferent today? How long will this continue? <
Article by Leslie Stainton.
Kathy Meyer, coordinator of French 232, UM Romance Languages Department, provided translation assistance for the interview.
Does Your Cell Phone Foster Rape?
The deadly conflict that has gripped the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1996 has fueled an epidemic of sexual violence—so much so that eastern Congo is now the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman or a girl. A prime cause of the atrocities and conflict is greed for the region’s vast mineral wealth. In their drive to profit from minerals like tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold—vital components of cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices—armed militias from all sides of the conflict use rape as a deliberate strategy to intimidate and control local populations. Some electronics companies are working to create conflict-free supply chains and a conflict-free mining sector in Congo. By using your consumer power to make responsible purchasing decisions and by letting companies know that conflict-free manufacturing is important to you, you can help end the violence. Find out how the 21 largest electronics companies stack up, and tell them it matters.
Dozens of UM faculty, students, and staff heard physician Denis Mukwege speak at SPH last fall about the human rights crisis in battle-scarred eastern Congo. Some reactions:
" I think it’s really a bonus that he was able to come to SPH because his work really
is public health, and intervening and interrupting what’s going on in east Congo should
be the work of public health practitioners. Dr. Mukwege’s visit serves as an inspiration
for this important work."
Irene Butter, Professor Emeritus of Health Management and Policy; Member, Wallenberg Executive Committee
"Dr. Mukwege sees so many terrible things every day. He’s seen the entire spectrum
of human cruelty, but he still has hope and humanity. He still is out there working,
day in and day out, and he still believes that things can be changed. For him to be
here was really inspirational. It solidified my desire to go to the Democratic Republic
of Congo and help out. My ultimate goal is to open an orphanage or a school some place
where the children born of rape can be safe and receive an education."
Emily DeMeo, UM SPH Student
"Not only have his personal efforts as a surgeon and humanitarian helped heal the
physical and psychological trauma of rape and mutilation, but his relentless efforts
to spread information and insight throughout the world are fostering action in many
sectors. Dr. Mukwege’s visit and presentation at SPH were enormously informative,
but more important, deeply inspirational. I think that everyone is heartened by this
living evidence of how public health is so much more than just medicine."
Mark Wilson, UM SPH Professor of Epidemiology; Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary
"It was amazing to watch people’s faces as they absorbed the information that Dr.
Mukwege had and then came to a new understanding of what the issues were that this
remarkable man was facing at home. There were international students, and a lot of
them were from Africa. I think they were surprised that this was going on in their
continent. Those students are now using social networking to get the word out. A whole
group of people from around the campus are now coming together to talk about activism,
to talk about involvement, to talk about individuals going over there to volunteer."
Timothy Johnson, Chair and Professor, UM Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology
Hope from Michigan
In response to Denis Mukwege’s call for action, faculty, staff, and students from across the UM campus are assembling an interdisciplinary team of graduate students to carry out a needs assessment for Panzi Hospital, which Mukwege directs. The assessment will serve as a basis for further collaborations between the hospital and UM, including an appraisal of health care delivery needs; an analysis of community-based support systems for rape victims; and an assessment of financial, managerial, organizational, and information systems—which Mukwege has identified as key needs for his institution. Members of the UM School of Nursing are also organizing a scholarly meeting to increase public awareness of the situation in eastern Congo and to develop an ongoing agenda for research and advocacy. For more information on either initiative, or to volunteer, e-mail Karl Krupp (firstname.lastname@example.org) in the UM School of Nursing’s Office of Global Outreach.