WASHINGTON - When asked if he is afraid for his life, Dr. Denis Mukwege responded candidly: 'I am human.' Due to the nature of his work, the renowned gynecological surgeon has received death threats for years.
But the Congolese Nobel Peace Prize laureate said he draws his strength from the women he treats. Patients who come to him to heal after going through unimaginable horrors.
'The women I'm treating are so powerful,' Mukwege said in an interview with VOA's Straight Talk Africa TV program. 'What I'm doing is just a small sense if I compare what they [rape survivors have been through] in the situation of conflict where everyone wants to use them.'
He is now honoring the women he says inspired him, including his mother, in a new book titled 'The Power of Women: A Doctor's Journey of Hope and Healing.' In it, he reexamines the agency of women in spaces and platforms where decisions are made and at times despite some patriarchal societies that often fail women, he said, women continue to give back and nurture for a greater good.
Ukraine, Ethiopia rape survivors
Mukwege's work is particularly relevant today as sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war in conflicts around the globe. He used two examples to illustrate the urgency of the issue: Ukraine and Ethiopia.
Before Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, his foundation had established contact with women in Donbas who were raped in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. There have been more than 700 reports of rape by Russian forces in Ukraine since the February invasion, the Ukrainian parliament's human rights ombudsman said May 9. In northern Ethiopia, both government and Tigrayan forces have been accused of sexual violence. Nisha Varia, formerly the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch's women's rights division, told VOA that rape in Tigray is being used as a weapon and is accompanied by ethnic slurs and other degradation.
Mukwege said when rape is used during conflicts, it is 'used to humiliate, to just make the so-called enemy to feel powerless, to be in a situation that is completely humiliating and you can't really fight against it. It's a weapon, but it's a strategy of war,' he said.
But he said he is heartened by an international outcry about the violence against women in Ukraine. He would like to see the same outcry against atrocities in other parts of the world.
'The international community should react in each conflict because the suffering is universal and the reaction against the suffering or to take care of the suffering people should be also universal,' he said, adding that 'the case of Ukraine shows us that if there is a will, we have the capacity to stop atrocities.'
Mukwege said a universal sentiment connects most women who have been raped, whether he speaks to victims in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere. He said perpetrators leave a sense of fear and that you hear victims saying, 'they'll kill me,' he said. 'Most of the women have the impression that they don't exist at all after being raped.'
Mukwege, who met with senior U.S. officials and first lady Jill Biden during his visit to Washington, is also calling for more efforts to prosecute perpetrators so women can receive justice.
'I think that justice is very important. It's not revenge,' he said. 'Justice is not only pressure against the perpetrators, but justice is needed for victims because in the process of healing, victims need really to be recognized as a victim. They need really to get someone with this power, this authority, to say you are not guilty. It's not your fault.'
Justice and resilience
Death threats against Mukwege at times come from unknown sources and he has been forced to live at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the DRC, where he treats rape survivors. 'I can't leave the hospital without an escort. I have the police who are taking care of me,' he said. 'To get this kind of life living in the hospital with your patients and my family and so on. This is a terrible thing.'
Since 1999, Mukwege and his team have treated more than 50,000 survivors of sexual violence at the hospital he founded. The hospital also treats the psychological trauma of women caught up in the ongoing violence between militia groups in the eastern DRC.
Mukwege said those resilient women are the best hope for some of the world's war-torn regions. After they have healed, they demand change.
'When women stand up after being treated, they didn't stand for themselves, they are standing for themselves and for their children, for their family. For me, this is really wonderful. Society can't protect them, but when they get healing and stand up, they stand up and raise their voice for all the community.'
Salem Solomon is an award-winning multimedia reporter and editor with the Voice of America's News Center.
Salem's multimedia and data-driven projects include Hunger Across Africa, a project that won the Cowan Award for Humanitarian Reporting, Boko Haram: Terror Unmasked, Unrest: Ethiopia at a Crossroads, How Western DRC's Ebola Outbreak Was Contained, Zimbabwe in Transition and How Long Have Africa's Presidents Held Office?, which won second place at the 2016 African Media Awards.
Previously, she worked in the Africa Division, covering the latest news from across the continent. She started working at VOA with the Horn of Africa service while completing her master's degree in journalism at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where she was a teaching assistant. She has reported and edited stories online, and for radio broadcasts and TV in English, Amharic and Tigrigna.
Salem's work has appeared in prominent news outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Tampa Bay Times and others. She researches trends in analytics and digital journalism. Her work focused on journalism innovation and fact-checking initiatives has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, on Poynter Online and Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab, and she has taught advanced reporting at the University of South Florida's Department of Journalism and Digital Communication.
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