Congolese doctor and Nobel Peace Prize 2018 laureate, Denis Mukwege tells his history as an advocate of women and children experiencing sexual violence in Africa

The latest edition of the seminar and debates event Fronteiras do Pensamento hosted Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, whose work in defense of life and healthcare of women has helped over 85 thousand patients and conferred him the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. With the mediation of journalist João Gabriel de Lima, Mukwege talked about the challenges of his work and what inspires him to save lives. The main theme of the events at the Fronteiras do Pensamento this year is “meanings of life.”

Born in the city of Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, the gynecologist faced difficulties in childhood due to a lack of healthcare services – an infection almost took his life after birth – before joining and completing medicine at the University of Burundi (Burundi); later, he proceeded with studies at the Universities of Angers (France) and Brussels (Belgium). He returned to his homeland, where he worked at Lemera Hospital (amidst the Congolese civil war) and built the Panza Hospital (dedicated to supporting women and children undergoing sexual and obstetrics violence). 

His dedication to preserving the life and dignity of these women and children conferred the doctor many international prizes. In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize [co-awarded with Iraqi activist (Nadia Murat)], he was granted the Olof Palme Prize, the Legion of Honour’s Knight distinction, and the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights. By contrast, after repeated threats, he suffered an attack in 2012 that caused the death of one of his colleagues. “The meaning of my existence is to save lives, I don’t care about the price I have to pay,” he said on the stage of Santander Theater.

“Dad, I’m going to be a doctor and save lives”

Thanks to the action of a Swedish activist residing in Congo, Mukwege survived complications during his birth. “A mistake in the cut of the umbilical cord opened me to a generalized infection,” he said during his speech. “Mrs. Bergman left her country and moved to Congo to fight for our lives. Because of her, I’m a survivor today.”

His father, a reverend, was another inspiration. He says that he often accompanied his father during his work in the community when he was about 8 years-old. “One day, he was called to see a very sick child. He prayed for his health and returned him to his family”, recalls Mukwege. “My dad said he couldn’t do anything else, because he wasn’t a doctor. I told him, innocently: dad, I’m going to be a doctor and save lives.”

His resentment with the high child mortality rate in his country made Mukwege put his utmost efforts into ensuring safer births for mothers and infants. “It’s such a passion, such happiness to see the results of this endeavor. But then the frustration hit hard,” he says. At Lemera Hospital, in a rural region, he saved many lives – he performed as many as 18 surgeries a day. However, in 1998, the Second Congo War broke out and he was forced to end his work – the war decimated about 6 million people In the following year, back to Bukavu, he founded Panzi Hospital.

“Justice for women is justice for mankind”

Mukwege recalls that his first patient in Panzi didn’t show up to give birth, but to receive medical care after an extremely violent rape. “I thought that cases with serious wounds were uncommon. Unfortunately, I was wrong,” he says. The doctor then discovered that violent rape is used in civil war as a war method to destroy communities: it is a sadist and cruel form of physical and psychological tortures that involve public humiliation and risk of HIV infection.

“The most hideous remembrance I have is of a night where more than 200 women were raped in front of their families, systematically,” he resents. “What can we do about this violence? All we can do is to respond with love, medical, psychological care and financial aid. We have to encourage leadership and autonomy in women and turn this suffering into strength so that they can be leading players in society.”

The Nobel Peace Prize advocates that gender equality must be the word of order, not just in Congo but worldwide. Such barbaric crimes are committed all over the world; therefore, Mukwege supports the creation of a global fund for victims of sexual crimes. “Women can’t go on fighting alone. We, men, have to roll up our sleeves and fight along with them.”

The doctor’s conclusion is that the patriarchal society model has to come to an end so that a better and more just world can exist and that men must combat any type of notion of gender superiority urgently. “Justice for women is justice for mankind, it’s what we need to heal a wounded world,” he says. “They’re choices that will save our own lives tomorrow: a choice of positive masculinity and gender equality.” 

Content published in September 9, 2019

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