Denis Mukwege’s time has come.
The Congolese doctor has devoted his life to fixing the broken bodies of brutalized and violated women, and rumors swirled for years that he has been in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize.
On Friday, he was confirmed as joint winner of the prestigious honor, sharing the 2018 prize with Iraqi rights activist Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who was kidnapped and taken as a sex slave by ISIS.
Mukwege has earned the moniker “the man who mends women” for the work he and his colleagues at Panzi Hospital have done to treat tens of thousands of women and girls, survivors of rape and sexual violence, which has been used as a weapon of war since conflict began in the east of the DRC in 1995.
In a nation that has been ripped apart by war, the Panzi Hospital – nestled in the hills above the Congolese town of Bukavu – provides a rare sanctuary for women who have been raped. Many travel hundreds of miles to have both their physical and psychological wounds healed by Mukwege.
The use of rape as a weapon in the DRC has been widely reported. Although exact figures are unavailable, the United Nations estimates that more than 200,000 Congolese women are rape survivors.
Mukwege recalled the horrific injuries suffered by one of his former patients in 1999 at the height of the war.
“They brought me a woman who had been raped by several men in uniform,” he said. He’s told this story many times since that fateful day but there was still pain in his voice as he retold it.
“She hadn’t just been raped,” he said. “They had also shot at her genitals. I had never seen anything like it. I thought it must be an exceptional case, the act of a madman. I couldn’t imagine that it would become the work I do for probably the rest of my life.”
Mukwege’s career has spanned more than 20 years, during which time he has treated tens of thousands of women.
The women at Panzi Hospital view Mukegwe as a father. “I may be the only one to whom they can express what they feel,” he said. “Sometimes it’s important to help them heal psychologically and tell them: ‘You are not destroyed. They wanted to destroy you, but you are still a woman. You are a woman and you need to be strong.’”
Mukwege was interviewed in May 2017 in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, where the doctor had been shortlisted for the $1 million Aurora Humanitarian Prize. (The prize would later go to American doctor Tom Catena.)
As he spoke, this pastor’s son who pivoted his career from pediatrics to obstetrics and then gynecological surgery to respond to local needs, was clearly making one more career shift – to activist.
A brutal history
Between 1885 and 1908 Belgium’s King Leopold II made Congo his own private colony, amassing great wealth from rubber harvested through forced labor. Not meeting your quota would result in a limb being chopped off. In just 20 years 10 million people died.
It is this history and its role in the present day crisis that Mukwege wishes more people around the world knew, and Congolese people remembered.
“Recent events have reminded us of previous experiences we’ve lived in Congo,” he said. Lamenting the lack of museums or events to remember Congo’s brutal colonial history, the surgeon added: “In Congo, the fact that we have no memory means we tend to repeat history.”
Mukwege lamented what he described as DRC’s “illegitimate power.” President Joseph Kabila’s mandate ended in December 2016 but the incumbent has delayed national elections, leading repeatedly to violence.
On October 11, 2017, the electoral commission announced that there would be no vote before April 2019, which has further angered the opposition and fueled fears of further instability.
Mukwege went on to talk about how the global demand for the mineral coltan – like rubber before it – is fueling conflict in his country, and why African societies will never advance unless they address the impact of both toxic masculinity and negative cultural norms on women – “the misery women suffered at the hands of men,” he called it.
“What women endure in our societies in times of peace is a latent form of what they then suffer in times of conflict,” he said.
“We have to root out patriarchy; We raise our sons by stripping them of any emotion and our daughters end up in the kitchen. Africa’s future begins when girls know that they are equal to boys.”
We share the same humanity
Asked where he thought the solutions to Congo’s intractable problems would come from, the doctor suggested it must be both bottom-up – in the form of Congolese people demanding change – and top-down, with the international community and the multinational corporations who benefit from Congo’s mineral wealth putting pressure on the President and his government to ensure peace.
“I operated on a mother, then 15 years later, I’d operate on her daughter, and three years after that, I’d operate on the granddaughter - a baby,” he recounted. “By the time I was sewing up the second generation, I said to myself: ‘The answers won’t come from the operating theater.’”
“I absolutely have to tell the world, show the world, that there is a collective responsibility to act in DRC. We share the same humanity and we cannot continue to allow economic wars to be fought on women’s bodies.”