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Using Rape as a Weapon of War Should Cross Every International Red Line

5 minute read
Denis Mukwege, M.D., is the founder of the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, caring and advocating for survivors of sexual violence. He is one of five finalists for the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, which is awarded annually in Yerevan, Armenia, on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors. This year’s ceremony will be held on May 28.

Rape is not just a physical, violent act perpetrated against one victim. It is an assault on humanity. The victim suffers not just from physical trauma, but the lingering effects of psychological violation. That, after all, is the purpose of rape at a time of war. Rape destroys the will to live, it paralyzes victims, their families, and entire communities. Rape is a cost-effective way to establish power over the vanquished. With each woman or girl who is attacked, a family is ruined. In eastern Congo, many thousands of families have been devastated. This crisis threatens to destroy the very fabric of our society, leaving us torn to shreds, subdued, and crushed.

I am a surgeon, certainly, but I am a women’s rights advocate as well. More and more, I realize that I am a human rights advocate, perhaps that above all else. Many years before the war, I realized maternal health and mortality should be protected. Families become consumed by sadness on what should be the happiest day of their lives – all because they do not have access to basic medical care and support.

The developed world often takes access to medical services and facilities for granted. In Congo, these necessities are all too often unavailable. And so, I chose a profession that would help me help them.

But the war changed everything. In 1996, we fled to Bukavu. We founded Panzi Hospital in 1999. It was smaller and had fewer resources, but I thought I could resume my work.

I tried. But the war had changed everything. In three months, I treated 45 victims of the most brutal kind of sexual assault. My patients were survivors of rape – most often gang-raped, beaten, physically and mentally battered. The women who came to me ranged from young children to an 80-year-old woman. They all believed they had no reason to live.

The 80-year-old woman, who had been gang-raped asked me, “Why didn’t you just let me die?”

Imagine you have been raped in front of your family, your children, your community; how can you ever recover? I wanted to help her, and all our patients that suffered such trauma.

The small hospital was insufficient to tackle the scale of the violence. We established our holistic healing model that today has helped more than 50,000 survivors of sexualized violence. We began by treating their physical wounds. But as more and more women shared their horrors, we started to see that the wounds went far deeper than those we could treat physically.

We hired a psychologist. We had to help women start to find a way back from their ordeal. We help younger survivors resume their education, while older women are provided vocational training and support to help them provide for themselves, to feed their children and put a roof over their heads.

We see these women fight back from the brink. They find power within themselves. They fight for the rights of their children and their community. They want justice. We have since helped them with legal assistance. We see these women transform from victims and survivors into activists.

In 2011, the American Journal of Public Health revealed that 48 women and girls aged 15 to 49 were raped each hour in a single province of Congo. That is more than 1,000 women and girls each day. In Congo, without political and economic stability, this scourge of rape threatens to destroy more families, more communities.

Our goal is to increase protections for women and to advocate that those responsible for sexual violence be brought to justice, including the Congolese government and militia groups laying siege to the eastern part of our country. The Congolese government has responsibility to listen to the voices of civil society, to negotiate a path to peace in good faith, and to eradicate corruption. The Congolese government must be held responsible for the exploitation of our natural resources, and the negative economic impact this ongoing conflict has on the Congolese people.

Sexual violence has been accepted as part of this conflict for too long. That must change. We have an international consensus against the use of nuclear weapons and against chemical and biological weapons, and against torture. Since 1919, international law has recognized that rape as a weapon of war must end. And yet it continues as a cheap, effective tool of war. Making the bodies of women and children the battlefields. As human beings and governments, we need to say, if you win a war by destroying women, the international community will never accept you as a leader.

We must pursue justice for all crimes against humanity that shock the conscience.

We also need a cultural shift on the ground; men need to understand that to protect women is to protect themselves, and that respect for women is key to real equity. Rape is not only a woman’s issue; it is humanity’s crisis to solve.

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