© 2024 KRWG
News that Matters.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

He fights sexual violence. He's won a Nobel and now a $1 million honor. Is he hopeful?

Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege has spent nearly 25 years campaigning against sexual violence and aiding survivors. On Thursday, he won the $1 million Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. In his remarks, he paid tribute to the survivors. "These women stand up again after being subjected to extreme violence and not only reclaim their own strength but also extend a helping hand to others."
Joel Saget
/
AFP via Getty Images
Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege has spent nearly 25 years campaigning against sexual violence and aiding survivors. On Thursday, he won the $1 million Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. In his remarks, he paid tribute to the survivors. "These women stand up again after being subjected to extreme violence and not only reclaim their own strength but also extend a helping hand to others."

In 2018 Dr. Denis Mukwege won the Nobel peace prize for his unrelenting campaign against sexual violence. Last night he won the $1 million Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity.

These honors recognize the nearly 25 years that Dr. Denis Mukwege has been an advocate for the cause. In 1999, he founded a hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to treat survivors of sexual assault and rape in the ongoing conflict there. Mukwege and his staff at Panzi hospital in Bukavu have treated more than 80,000 women and girls, provided mental health support and helped break the stigma around survivors of rape.

As he accepted the Aurora Prize on Thursday — and the $1 million grant to be used to support his cause — Mukwege paid tribute to people around the world who are working against sexual violence and to the survivors.

"These women stand up again after being subjected to extreme violence and not only reclaim their own strength but also extend a helping hand to others in need. I recall one patient whose case deeply affected our staff. After she was treated, she trained to become a nurse. She said she was doing it because she wanted to aid others like her," Mukwege said.

In an interview with NPR, Mukwege said that despite the recognition for his work, he has not seen a decrease in the number of women and young girls who have needed help. In 2023, Doctors Without Borders reported "extremely high numbers of sexual violence" in the DRC, saying it amounted to 48 new victims each day.

Mukwege expressed frustration that the world has forgotten what's happening in his home country and urged the international community to pay closer attention to sexual violence in conflicts around the world and the lasting consequences its has on communities.

"We have a responsibility to put an end to the use of rape as a weapon of war," Dr. Mukwege told NPR. "We can see that the ways that sexual violence is destroying the communities, destroying people. We need to really to get an international way to put an end on sexual violence in conflict, to put an end on this heinous act [of] destroying women, destroying children"

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

After you won the Nobel Peace Prize, you spoke of your hope that it would bring awareness to the issue of sexual violence and that more people would know about what's happening in the Congo. Do you feel like that has happened?

Not at all. I am so sorry to say that the crisis in Congo is the number one of the neglected crises in the world. And this is sad because now 30 years of women of Congo are suffering. And at the Panzi Hospital we are treating now 25 years after the same number of victims. So I think that this is really a shame to see that after 25 years, nothing is done to stop the acts of sexual violence against the women in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In the 25 years since you opened Panzi hospital, have there been changes that affected your work to help victims of sexual violence?

When we started with the Panzi Hospital, really, it was not opened for victims of sexual violence. We opened the hospital to support women because in our region, maternal mortality is very, very high. So my idea was how we can fight against maternal mortality? Then we opened the hospital. But unfortunately, the first case that we treated as a hospital came because she was raped with extreme violence. And I had never seen things like that. I was in the region for 15 years, but it was for me the first time to see a woman raped in this way.

Then all the women who were coming to the hospital, I was so surprised to see that they came with the same story. But most of them were really ashamed to talk about what happened to them. And this was a big problem for us at the beginning. It was really a challenge for us to bring women to be open and tell their stories.

Now, 25 years later, we can see a lot of progress. Women now are able to talk about that problem, to fight for their rights. They can even support each other. We are able to treat them medically. We have capacity when it comes to psychological support, and we can help them to reintegrate in their community, in giving them new skills or supporting them economically.

But the big issue that we are facing is justice. And justice cannot be provided by the hospital, cannot be provided by civil society. It's only the state who can provide justice. And there the impunity is a big issue that we are facing for 25 years. And my impression is that if the conflict or alleged sexual violence is going on in the region, it's because of the lack of justice, because impunity allows perpetrators to get an impression that they can go and raping without any consequence on them.

Looking at current and recent wars where we've seen sexual violence, I wonder if you had any takeaways?

I think that with regards to the conflict between Israel and Palestine we could say before October 7 that sexual violence was not a big part of that conflict. But after October 7, this is not true.

And now it's become what we know in all conflicts in Africa, in Europe, Kosovo, Ukraine, in America, in Colombia and others. Rape is happening and we need to protect women. This is, for me, the most important thing. It cannot be politicized. We know that in conflict, everywhere, women are suffering. Israeli or Palestinian, I think that it's happening everywhere. And we really need to be proactive to protect women in conflict.

After more than two decades of activism against sexual violence, what are some of the biggest lessons you learned?

I think that we need really to learn more about sexual violence. I have an impression that most of the time we are taking this question as a question of victims, but it touches everyone. And we should really just learn more about the consequences of rape on victims but also on communities and society, and how rape destroys the social cohesion, how it can destroy the fabric of the society and understand the suffering of victims.

And I think that if we can learn more about the consequences of rape on victims, then I think that it can be easier not only to get empathy but also to act against it. We are asking governments that this should be addressed and just be clear that it should not happen in any conflict anywhere in the world.

But it's very difficult to bring leaders to understand that sexual violence is a way to destroy not only victims but also communities and society. So I think we need really to try to learn more about the consequences so we can act knowing that this can touch us all.

Where do you get the hope to continue the work despite the many challenges?

I would like really to invite you to come to Congo and talk with the Congolese women. I admire them. And I think they are so strong fighting for not only their rights but also the rights of their children, even if they are suffering a lot. But they still keep hope. So when I can see how all these women who are victims of terrible things [are] still hoping and believing in the future, I have just an impression that what I can do is very, very small. I'm so impressed by that strength and have more reason to go on doing what I'm doing.

Copyright 2024 NPR