Last week, coffee in hand, I read a chilling email. Armed men had shot at Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese surgeon globally renowned for his work to help the survivors of sexual violence, right outside his home. The bullets missed Mukwege — but killed his security guard, Joseph Bizimana.
The news hit close to home.
Just last month, colleagues and I were in New York for three days of meetings for the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict. Mukwege is on the advisory committee of the campaign, and during our time in New York he made a speech at the UN on behalf of the campaign. Now there are some reports suggesting that the speech he made at the UN is what triggered this attack against his life.
What did he say that was so offensive? He told UN officials about his work trying to heal women in eastern Congo.
“This year I am once again operating on women whose genitals were destroyed by rape and other atrocities. There are many women who are barely getting by, and rape is continuing. The rainy season is coming soon in North Kivu and the vulnerability of women is increasing.”
Mukwege believes strongly that the healing for women must go beyond medical services to survivors. At the UN he called on the international community to take “urgent action to arrest those responsible for these crimes against humanity and to bring them to justice.” Some say the attack against him was retaliation.
In the DRC, rape is a weapon of war that has been used by both government forces and rebel forces. Mukwege’s willingness to advocate so publicly for women who are treated with such breathtakingly inhumane brutality — and put the blame where it should go — makes him a target. As Nicholas Kristof said in a New York Times blog post: “President Kabila has long been angry at Dr. Mukwege, and the UN speech can’t have helped.”
A couple of days before his UN speech, Mukwege told one of my colleagues in the campaign, New York-based journalist Lauren Wolfe, that he has treated more than 40,000 women in the last 12 years — and performed more than 15,000 operations on women whose genitals and internal organs have been destroyed by sexual violence. Sexual violence is a life-changing fact for far too many women in eastern Congo, where women’s bodies are fodder in the fight to control mineral wealth.
Mukwege is one of an extremely rare breed of individuals who works patiently every day to help survivors of some of the worst crimes imaginable.
He founded the Panzi Hospital in eastern Congo because he saw that thousands of women were dying from complications or injuries resulting from sexual violence and had nowhere to go. Mukwege has the support of some foreign governments, and many non-governmental organizations including Physicians for Human Rights, and he is clearly grateful for their contributions.
But when it comes to finally bringing sexual violence to an end, his real faith is at the local level.
“We’re living in a situation in which you have to call into question the very credibility of our institutions,” Mukwege told us in New York. “That’s why I think we need to start moving toward grassroots organizations. The women in these organizations have really amazing capabilities. That’s where I think we’ll find solutions.”
At one point while we were in New York, my colleagues were helping Mukwege get his PowerPoint slides up and running for his presentation to us. I noticed the presentation had been sent to him by someone in the Congo, who called him “father” and signed the email “your loving daughter.”
Later that evening, I commented to him how nice it must be for him to work with his daughter. He looked perplexed. I explained that I had seen the email to which his morning presentation had been attached. We continued walking in silence for a moment, and I worried I might have offended him by being too nosy.
He stopped finally, and looked at me.
“At first I was confused by your question,” he explained. “You see I work with many survivors of sexual violence, and they ended up in my hospital working for me because I operated on them. Most of them have been rejected by their families and their communities because they were raped.”
“So they call me their father. They have no else.”
Over the weekend, it was reported that Mukwege and his family left the Democratic Republic of Congo and, for the time being at least, are safe. In the wake of his attack, violence has broken out in his home city of Bukavu — and humanitarian and other aid organizations worry for the safety of their staff in the region.
In the meantime, the women, girls and babies that Mukwege has so valiantly risked his life to help, are left with one less important ally and friend on the ground in Congo.
For the sake of the survivors of rape and other atrocities in Eastern Congo — for the sake of the many women who call Dr. Mukwege “father” — let’s hope that the government of the DRC holds the attackers accountable for their actions.
Let’s also ensure that this attack will finally make governments and institutions around the world act — bringing resources, political will and a genuine commitment to human rights over corporate greed — to finally bring rape and other forms of gender violence to an end.
The women of Congo are waiting.
Rachel Vincent works for the Nobel Women’s Initiative, based in Ottawa. The Nobel Women’s Initiative helped to launch the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence last May.