Dr. Denis Mukwege Mukengere is a world-renowned obstetrics and gynecological surgeon, and a healer who has treated tens of thousands of women in a country where rape is a weapon of war.
A new documentary highlights the courageous work performed by this son of a Pentecostal minister who heals women from the inside out at Panzi Hospital, which he founded in 1999 Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Mukwege traveled with his father to visit the sick, which later inspired him to study medicine. Now he’s tending the wounded in a country long riven by political strife, corruption, and violence. They call him “the man who mends women.”
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The DRC’s history of war and turmoil goes back to the reign of Belgium’s King Leopold II, who was responsible for the death of as many as 10 million Congolese through forced labor and famine. The notorious Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga became the military dictator and president of Congo from 1965 until 1977. Mobutu’s reign of terror was marked by economic exploitation and corruption, uncontrolled debt and inflation, and rampant human rights violations. Today, about 87 percent of Congo’s population of 67 million live on less than $2 a day.
With a history of bloody wars and corruption, the DRC became known as the “worst place in the world to be a woman.”
Systematic sexual assault is a common tactic of militias to force local populations into surrendering natural resources from local mines. Human rights organizations estimate that a staggering 48 women are raped in the country every hour.
By destroying women and girls, the DRC is breaking down the foundation of families and villages. In African culture, if a woman is sexually violated, she faces shame from her community and her husband. Once a family and village are torn apart, warring factions swoop in and take control over sought-after land and resources.
Although the DRC is rich in agriculture, it’s the country’s minerals and precious metals—including large deposits of gold, cobalt and copper—that are the cause of turmoil. These same minerals are used in electronic products such as cellular phones, iPads, and other devices popular in the United States, China, and worldwide.
It is against the backdrop of DRC’s rape crisis that Mukwege saw the need to establish Panzi Hospital 16 years ago. He originally planned to focus his medical practice on maternal health, but the rising violence brought more women and their children to his door with specific needs. The hospital’s motto is: “Survivors of rape deserve dignity, justice, and a chance to rebuild.”
In that spirit, Mukwege and his dedicated staff have treated nearly 40,000 survivors of sexual violence over the past decade and a half. The hospital’s highly skilled surgeons perform complicated procedures requiring long-term recuperation for patients. Panzi now includes 450 beds, with 250 reserved for survivors of sexual violence.
About half of Mukwege’s patients are either unable to return to their villages or they’re abandoned by their husbands due to the stigma associated with rape. Others have lost their families to militia violence. Mukwege soon realized he would need to expand beyond hospital services.
Envisioning a comprehensive model of treatment, Mukwege founded the Panzi Foundation DRC and Panzi Foundation USA to provide transitional housing and long-term care for women and their children. The hospital’s suite of services includes psychological counseling; vocational training; math and literacy classes; and grants and loans for small businesses.
“Our aftercare facility, Maison Dorcas, is the heart of Dr. Mukwege’s vision,” explained Elizabeth Blackney, media and communications director for Panzi Hospital and its foundations.
“Psychosocial care is complemented by programs from music therapy and dance therapy, to literacy and micro-finance of small businesses,” she said. “There are sewing classes and a thriving micro-enterprise of basket and bag making. At music therapy, the lyrics and music traverse the entire human experience. Panzi provides a sanctuary for healing, reflection, and rebuilding of the self and family.”
Panzi Hospital’s success comes with great risk for Mukwege and his family. Mukwege has been outspoken in his opposition to government-sanctioned violence and is a regular critic of DRC President Joseph Kabila and his associates. In 2012, the doctor barely survived an assassination attempt and was forced to flee the DRC for a year.
In January, the Congolese government took an unprecedented step and seized Panzi’s operating accounts, alleging that Panzi owed $600,000 in back taxes. The hospital, however, is a non-profit public health institution supported by private donations. It has no tax liability with the Congolese government.
The Panzi Foundation USA launched an emergency fundraising campaign to keep the hospital open. U.S. supporters applied pressure to the State Department, U.S. Mission to the United Nations, and European partners to support urgent services, food, and medicine for the more than 300 patients housed in the hospital compound.
“The outpouring of support for Dr. Mukwege and the entire Panzi team, in Congo and the around the world, speaks to the necessity of this work,” said Panzi Foundation USA executive director Naama Haviv in the midst of the crisis.
A pair of French filmmakers, Thierry Michel and Colette Braeckmann, decided to document Mukwege’s story and the Panzi Hospital. The film, “The Man Who Mends Women — The Wrath of Hippocrates,” was screened in Paris, The Hague, and Brussels and has received rave reviews. Earlier this month, the DRC Media Minister announced it has banned screening of the film in the country.
In a statement, Mukwege said, “The DRC Media Minister’s decision to censor the film makes plain the will of the government to refuse the Congolese people their right of access to information, to their history and their right to collective memory, and to tell the truth.”
Although most Congolese will not see his film, Mukwege will tell his story to the rest of the world. Screenings are scheduled for October in several cities around the United States, including Washington, D.C.
The Panzi Hospital, Dr. Mukwege and all of his patients and their children exemplify the resilience of people surviving in a war torn country amidst corruption, death and sexual violence.
“Dr. Mukwege built Panzi Hospital in a small, underserved village near Bukavu in 1999,” Blackney said. “Today, some 16 years later, his leadership and devotion to the people he serves is a testament to what one person can accomplish.”