January 16th, 2009
"African of the Year" Helps Congolese Rape Victims

Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist who treats rape victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was named “African of the Year” by the Nigerian Daily Trust newspaper earlier this week. Dr. Mukwege is also one of the winners of the 2008 United Nation’s Human Rights Prize and the Olof Palme prize for outstanding achievement in promoting peace, an honor whose previous recipients include former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and former Czech President Vaclav Havel. Mukwege’s clinic, the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, is one of the few medical facilities in the war-torn region of South Kivu. Receiving an average of 10 new patients a day, Dr. Mukwege and his staff perform surgery and offer counseling for women and girls suffering from rape as a weapon of war.

War-ravaged Congo has the globe’s highest incidence of rape, with recorded victims ranging from as young as two months to as old as 83 years. Major General Patrick Cammaert, former deputy UN force commander in the D.R.C., has said that “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict.” Rape victims are frequently infected with HIV by the rapist, and their reproductive organs are often completely destroyed. The psychological scars are profound, to say the least. As for the social repercussions, rape survivors in Congo are considered outcasts, often rejected as “dirtied” and thrown out of their homes by their shamed fathers or husbands.

Rape has become so dangerous in conflict zones around the world that a special session of the U.N. Security Council last June passed Resolution 1820 to demand “the immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians,” noting that “women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.”

Dr. Mukwege, who appeared with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes in August 2008, attempts to not only heal his victims, but also advocate for their rights on the global stage. This February, he will pair up with “Vagina Monologues” creator Eve Ensler on a five city tour across the United States to raise awareness about violence against women and girls in the D.R.C. and to fund raise for a new safe house for rape victims at his hospital.

WIDE ANGLE reported from Congo in the 2006 film Democracy in the Rough.

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