Q&A: Nobel Laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege on Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence

“We need this international solidarity so that criminals can understand that the work that Panzi [Hospital] carries out is not just being done for the sake of one person.”

—Dr. Denis Mukwege

Q&A: Nobel Laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege on Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence
Denis Mukwege, born March 1, 1955 in South Kivu (Belgian Congo) 1, is a Congolese gynecologist and human rights activist. (Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons)

“What can we do?” That is what Dr. Denis Mukwege asked us all when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for his work with survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Melanne Verveer—executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security at Georgetown University and the first U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues under President Obama—spoke to Mukwege about the origins of Panzi Hospital (which specializes in treating survivors of violence, the large majority of whom have been sexually abused); how the general public can support survivors of sexual violence; and what makes him continue his work in spite of death threats and violent attacks.

Listen to the full interview with Mukwege on the Seeking Peace podcast, hosted by Ambassador Melanne Verveer, or read it below:

Melanne Verveer: I want to ask you about your childhood. I understand that you traveled with your father, who was a pastor, and comforted the sick and the dying. What impact did that have on you?

Dr. Mukwege: I still remember to this day: I saw a child dying. My father was asked to go and pray for him. He prayed for the sick child and after praying, he said goodbye. And I thought that wasn’t enough—because whenever I was sick, if I had any health issue, my dad of course prayed. But he would also give me medicine to make me feel better. And so at that point I asked my father: “Why did you just pray for this child? Why didn’t you give him medicine, like you do for me?”

My father said: “Because I’m not a doctor.” I didn’t understand what he was saying. So he explained that …  in order to be a doctor, you need to get the proper education. So I told my father: ”Okay, then I will become a doctor. You’ll pray and I’ll give the medicine.”

Verveer: When you built Panzi Hospital in 1998, it was originally created to serve maternity patients. Tell us about the moment when you became aware of sexual violence as a weapon of war, and how that transformed the hospital.

Dr. Mukwege: The [Panzi] hospital wasn’t inaugurated yet when the first woman came. This woman knew there was a doctor, a surgeon, a gynecologist who worked there. She had been raped… extremely violently. It was the first time that I saw something so horrific. But in my head, I imagined that those who committed this crime must have been mentally ill, people who had completely lost their minds. So at first, I thought it was a one-off act.

I had worked as a doctor for more than fifteen years and within the span of three months, I treated 45 women who had been raped. Unfortunately, 20 years later, we are still going down the same path. Quite simply, their bodies are turned into a battlefield and unfortunately those who commit these acts live with total impunity. We have treated babies who are six months old, but also elderly women over 80 years old.

Denis Mukwege
Dr. Denis Mukwege with his patients. (Wikimedia Commons)

Verveer: Throughout the years, as more and more survivors of rape arrived, Panzi Hospital shifted gears to focus on healing and supporting women who had experienced sexual violence. Many of these women ended up helping Panzi expand its work.

Mukwege: I can give you an example that has always stood out to me. A woman returned and said, “My husband kicked me out of the house after I was raped. But after being treated, I started a small business and today I was able to build my own house. And I am very proud and very independent because now I live in my own house.” And then she showed me the certificate of the house. 

This woman was so proud to show me her home title and to live so independently that she asked us to go to court with her to file a complaint against the soldiers who had raped her.

Verveer: You just described that for each woman, she bears the physical scars, the terrible health, unspeakable health consequences of what happened to her. But she also has to be healed holistically, which is your approach: the psychological care, the dealing with trauma, the dealing with the economic needs so that she can go back and have a life again with dignity.

Mukwege: When we talk about reparations, we have to come to understand that we must go beyond material compensation, beyond giving a few banknotes or donating material goods to women. That’s just a small step. But the big step is to implement reparations that ensure that they are not repeated against the children that will be born from these women.

And today, globally, we have created a fund. The fund has been accepted by United Nations Resolution 2467 and it allows countries to come together and have a Global Fund for survivors.

Verveer: I wanted to ask you about the mapping report by the U.N. high commissioner on human rights when you were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with the Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, back in 2018. Much of your Nobel lecture also focused on this mapping report, which in many ways explained no fewer than 617 war crimes, crimes against humanity, even perhaps genocide. Can you explain why this is important?

Mukwege: I believe that my passion for justice stems from a single fact: These crimes have been happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo for 25 years. And as I just told you, 25 years later, we still have unpunished criminals who continue to commit these crimes. You are not going to find many conflicts in the world, past or present, where people take women, and bury them alive.

What comes out of all of this? Ten years after these reports were published, the same crimes are still being committed.

Verveer: Dr. Mukwege, you have received death threats for your work. And I wonder how you stay resilient, how you stay persevering, how you stay hopeful?

Mukwege: I am so small, I realize that I represent nothing if I compare to the resilience, the strength of women to be able to move forward—especially when I see their capacity to love, their ability to continue to love despite everything they go through in society. And I believe that what I can give is very, very small compared to what women give.

When I was attacked in my house and my guard was killed, it was a very deep trauma for me, for my wife, for my daughters who were at the scene. It was a deep trauma and for the first time, I decided to leave Congo.

But the ability of women to call for my return, to say “We’re going to work for your protection.” Women who have nothing, but who assure us that “We will feed you, we will protect you. And we can assure you that before anything happens to you, they’d have to kill all of the women standing guard outside of your home, 24 hours a day.”

Verveer: Let me ask you in conclusion: What can we do?

Dr. Mukwege: I believe that we need this international solidarity so that criminals can understand that the work that Panzi carries out is not just being done for the sake of one person. This work is being done for all of our humanity, to restore the dignity of women and this is very important. So, thank you very much to all the organizations that, throughout this time, have made sure that all of the staff at Panzi and all of the victims of sexual violence, stay safe. 

This interview excerpt was prepared by India Ellis.

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Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace & Security seeks to promote a more stable, peaceful and just world by focusing on the important role women play in preventing conflict and building peace, growing economies and addressing global threats like climate change and violent extremism. GIWPS engages in rigorous research, hosts global convenings, advances strategic partnerships and nurtures the next generation of leaders.