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‘We Cannot Rest in Our Fight.’ Angelina Jolie Talks to Dr. Denis Mukwege About Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence

8 minute read

Soft spoken, with a steady smile and deeply reassuring manner, Dr. Denis Mukwege is exactly the person you would want at your side if you were faced with a health crisis. He is known globally as a surgeon, advocate against the use of sexual violence against women as a strategy and weapon of war and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, but he remains, above all, a healer of bodies and minds: a deeply courageous man, who is devoted to the care and protection of women. For many, the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo might seem like a distant struggle, with no bearing on our lives. But it is a vicious war for control of the rich reserves of gold, coltan cobalt and other minerals deep in the bedrock of the country: minerals that are essential to the manufacture of the iPhone in your pocket, the electric car in your driveway and the jewelry that you wear. In a different world, the people of the DRC would be rich and the country famed for its culture, its landscape, its scientists and its engineers, and Dr. Mukwege would have led a tranquil life delivering babies in a country at peace. Instead, he runs a hospital with entire wards devoted to victims of rape: “babies, girls, young women, mothers, grandmothers, and also men and boys,” as he describes them, “cruelly raped, often publicly and collectively, by inserting burning plastic or sharp objects in their genitals.” Dr. Mukwege and I have come together on several occasions over the last seven years, trying to urge the world to do more to end impunity for warzone rape in the DRC and globally. Now he has written a book, The Power of Women: A Doctor’s Journey of Hope and Healing, to share his message. I began by asking him what inspired him to write.

Denis Mukwege: My book is a tribute to the power of women, who have inspired me throughout my life. Women are often treated as weak and inferior when it is the opposite. I want people to see victims of sexual violence differently. They are strong, courageous and powerful. I hope the book will further the greatest cause of the modern era—the campaign for women’s rights.

AJ: The survivors I meet amaze me with their dignity and quiet strength. Is there a story that has stayed with you?

DM: Alphonsine was kidnapped by an armed militia and raped repeatedly for months. She became pregnant and suffered from an obstructed labor, which resulted in the death of her baby and an obstetric fistula. She required over 14 surgeries at Panzi Hospital to repair her wounds. As her health became stronger, she told me that she wanted to go to school, to someday become a nurse at Panzi Hospital so she could treat other survivors. I was astonished. This girl—who had spent so much time in a hospital in unbearable pain—wanted to devote her life to supporting others. Last year, she received her degree, and now she works alongside us at Panzi. I am blown away by her commitment.

70,000 women have been treated at the Panzi hospital. Do you ever feel hopeless at the enormity of the problem?

For over twenty years, we’ve been trying to get the world to pay attention. You’d think the volume of cases would warrant a global outcry. But that is not what has happened. We are still admitting 5 to 7 new patients per day. I cannot allow myself to feel hopeless while there are still survivors who need our support. We cannot rest in our fight to end sexual violence as a weapon of war until it is a thing of the past—but we need support from world leaders.

Where do you find the strength to keep going?

I draw my strength from the survivors I interact with every day. These women and girls have been destroyed by men, physically, emotionally, societally. When they come to Panzi, they are often so traumatized that you think they could never recover. But they find the strength to rebuild their lives. If they can find the courage to continue, I know that I also must carry on advocating for them.

You mention the role of men in ending this violence. Did you have male readers in mind writing the book?

I hope many men will read this book, and will free themselves from a culture of toxic masculinity, not only in war-affected areas but also in time of peace at home, at work, on public transport or in the streets. It is crucial that men and boys stand at the side of women and girls to build a new paradigm based on mutual respect, challenging harmful practices and patriarchal customs.

You never wanted to be a specialist in post-rape care. You wanted to be an obstetrician. Do you ever think about how life could have been different?

I was forced to become a reluctant expert in treating sexual violence as a weapon of war. But I am proud that we have managed to stay true to our original vision of being a center of excellence for maternal health, and a safe space for women to bring their children into the world. We deliver over 4,000 babies every year, with a 99.1% live birth rate for our infants and a 0.14% maternal mortality rate. This is very low for Congo. While the violence in Congo is always emphasized, it is also a beautiful, vibrant country, full of life and potential.

That is so true. And the use of rape as a weapon is not something that only happens in the DRC. What solutions would make the biggest difference globally?

The only cases where we have seen progress in prosecutions have been when international humanitarian law has been applicable, and those cases are extremely rare. Almost total impunity exists for other cases—and that is something that first and foremost must change. I’m encouraged by the recommendation of this year’s Gender Equality Advisory Council to G7 Leaders to condemn the use of sexual violence as a method of war as a “red line” and lead the development of an International Convention to eliminate it.

We were in London together in 2014 when over 100 governments committed to eradicating impunity for conflict-related sexual violence. Do you feel those promises have been kept?

In some ways, yes. We’ve seen progress on supporting survivors and financial commitment to reparations funds for survivors. There’s been progress in collecting evidence. However, impunity remains the rule rather than the exception. And instead of seeing a reduction in the number of survivors seeking care at our hospital, we have had to build new health centers in order to meet the demand for our services in other areas in the country.

What is needed in Congo itself?

We’ve asked the Congolese government to establish international mechanisms of prosecution, such as an International Criminal Court for the country or specialized mixed chambers. We need a holistic transitional justice process that will provide justice to victims, heal our nation and restore the rule of law. We’ve also asked the United Nations to deploy investigators and forensic anthropologists to exhume the numerous mass graves in DRC to collect and preserve evidence.

What is your vision for the future?

My greatest hope is that one day our hospital will be devoted to the miracle of childbirth, rather than the tragedy of sexual violence, and that our wards devoted to victims of rape will be empty.

What can people do if they want to help?

The world has been silent for too long about the horrors of rape as a weapon of war. We need a global outcry and recognition for the mass atrocities that are occurring. I hope people in the United States will use their democratic rights and call their elected representatives and demand that they prioritize Congo. We also need financial resources to reach as many survivors as we can. I would ask that people visit our website, panzi.org to learn more.

You have been the victim of many assassination attempts. Are you worried this book might put you in more danger?

People often ask me if I am afraid, and of course I am. I don’t want to be a martyr. In 2012, when my dear friend and security guard was killed during one of the assassination attempts, I left Congo with my wife and daughters. I thought it was just too much to bear. But then I started receiving the news that women were selling fruit and vegetables to try to pay for my return ticket home. They were coming all the way to Panzi from remote villages to bring a little money every week. These women, who live on so little, were determined to bring me back. I thought that surely, after a little while, they would stop coming, but they came back week after week. They claimed that they would even physically shield me by standing guard at the hospital. How could I not return? I risk death, but a life of not being able to heal and support survivors because I am in hiding is unthinkable. When I am afraid or worried, I think of these women—they are a constant force around me.

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