Violence against women: Dr Denis Mukwege and the Nobel Peace Prize


Medicine is a noble profession, so it is confirming and uplifting when we hear stories of those who have used the power of our profession and their own love of humanity to truly care for others and stand up against what can only be described as one of the world’s evils, violence against women.

The recently announced 2018 Nobel Peace prize was awarded jointly to two people who have worked to raise world awareness of the horrors of rape used as a weapon of war, Nadia Murad and Dr Denis Mukwege.

“For almost 20 years I have witnessed war crimes committed against women, girls, and even baby girls not only in my country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also in many other countries. To the survivors from all over the world, I would like to tell you that through this prize, the world is listening to you and refusing to remain indifferent. The world refuses to sit idly in the face of your suffering.”

 The acceptance speech of Dr Denis Mukwege on receiving the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. (1)

Denis Mukwege is a Congolese gynaecologist who has worked to treat and to protect women who were severely physically and emotionally traumatised by sexual violence, perpetrated by soldiers who terrorised their villages. Nadia Murad is a Yazidi woman who was herself captured and repeatedly abused by ISIS soldiers and has courageously spoken out against the perpetrators, alerting the world to what has happened to her people.

While used for aeons to terrorise and suppress the enemy, it is only through the work of Denis Mukwege and others that in 2016 rape was recognised as a war crime.

The Congo has long been a place of conflict even prior to the civil war in the 1960s, escalating during the civil war in Rwanda.  As Dr Mukwege said in a 2015 speech accepting the Champion of Peace Award:

“Every woman and child has the right to a roof over her head, an education, and freedom from fear. As long as corruption, poverty, and the scourge of rape plagues families and our society, there will be no lasting, nor meaningful peace.” (2)

The rape that occurs in warfare is often carried out in public and perpetrated by groups of soldiers, involving in the assault not only adults, but children as well. It is used to terrorise peaceful populations who are then fearful of going to their gardens or to carry water, leading to fear and starvation and the movement off their own land to seek places of safety. As Dr Mukwege says:

“Rape devastates the body, but also the soul. It steals a woman’s self-worth and her physical and psychological health. When deployed as a strategy of control over land, over resources, or over an entire population, it is a cheap, effective way to destabilize entire communities.” (3)

In response to treating hundreds of women very severely traumatised by sexual violence, recognising that healing involved not only the body but the mind and the soul, Dr Mukwege and his co-workers set up the Panzi Hospital (4) and refuge where women are supported to start to regain their lives in a place of safety.

The violence and injuries these women and children experienced had often been unbelievably horrendous and for each one treated there were more who died from their injuries or from infection, or lived in horrible suffering in their villages, often incontinent, infertile, with HIV and with PTSD.

When rape is used as a weapon of war, the impact is not only to destroy women physically, it’s also to destroy their minds . . . to destroy their humanity.” (5)

For Dr Mukwege, one of his thousands of patients epitomises the work his organisation is doing and she is the first patient he treated over 20 years ago. On arrival, her injuries were so severe she was unable to walk and over the years he operated on her 6 times. She was inspired to help others who had similar experiences of rape. She enrolled in school and dedicated her life to taking care of other victims of sexual violence and today is one of the longest serving employees at Panzi Hospital. Thanks to her efforts and the work by the rest of Dr. Mukwege’s staff at Panzi Hospital, thousands of women have been able to rebuild their lives – some even going on to become nurses, doctors, and lawyers.

“The goal is to transform their pain into power,” Dr. Mukwege said. “We can change hate by love.” (6)

In recent times in the Congo, mining companies have been accused of using rape to clear areas in which they wish to mine minerals used to finance war. These so-called blood minerals include the rare metal Tantalum used in mobile phones. So how can we ignore these extreme levels of sexual and gender based violence? By speaking into our phones but not speaking out, could we be accused of being complicit to these horrific acts? (7)

Violence against women is not only frequent in war torn countries, and is not confined to the third world, but is found in all levels of society. Violence against women is not only the business of women, but of men and women in all our communities.

Recently in Australia we have heard reports from the Royal Commission into sexual abuse in institutions and have been shocked by the stories we have heard. #MeToo has become a worldwide movement against sexual abuse of women. This is only the tip of the iceberg because 7/10 perpetrators of reported rape are known by their victims, 34% are family members and in cases of reported sexual abuse in juveniles, 93% of the perpetrators are known to the victims(8) Women are not necessarily safe in their own homes, within what should be their sanctuaries.

In many countries violence against women, physical, sexual and emotional is considered to be normal, the authorities unwilling to become involved as indeed it has been the case in our own country in the past.

While not all men are the perpetrators of violence against women, until all men and women work together to honour women, until home is a sanctuary for every woman across the globe, until for every woman and her children our streets and countryside are safe from violence, until for every woman there is equality – there can never be peace, let alone true harmony between us all. As women, we are the mothers of sons, the partners of men. As such we have a role in teaching each male in our homes to respect and honour women, that violence of any kind cannot be tolerated and that there is great joy in living together in harmony. Harmony begins in our homes.

As doctors we are privileged to be in a position of influence in our own communities, nationally and globally. It is a power that used judiciously can help to create a better world. We have a responsibility to use this power to express the truth, to speak out against violence against women, children and men, to advocate for change, for equality for all, for deeply honouring and cherishing every human being, as part of our role as doctors…a responsibility we must not turn away from.












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