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How One Man Gave Congo’s Women Hope (The Times of London)

Originally published in:
The Times of London


Why are the lives of African women worthless? It’s a question that Denis Mukwege asks every day that he works with the raped and mutilated women of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As a young doctor he treated women in far-flung villages who would otherwise have had little chance of survival. He had wanted to deliver babies. Instead, he saw things he had never expected: the women who came to him had untreatable conditions, caused by torture and rape. There were old women, young girls, babies. The villages he visited had been devastated by planned outbreaks of sexual violence; the men murdered and the women made outcasts for ever. He saw his country plundered in an endless conflict, and his own life turned upside down by stories too horrible for nightmares.

Dr Mukwege found that he was now working in the worst place in the world for women — and virtually no one was interested in their plight.

For the 13 years of war that have plagued his country, he has never stopped treating the stream of raped women who have walked hundreds of miles to his base at Bukavo’s Panzi hospital in the South Kivu province of the DRC.

“I am not a saint,” Dr Mukwege says. He is often embarrassed by the praise heaped upon him. Walking through Panzi hospital, he sees a poster celebrating the UN Human Rights award he won in 2008, and tears it down. Mukwege is a special man, though — not only because his surgical skills are saving the women from traumatic conditions that would otherwise kill them, but also because he is taking the women on the next stage of their journey by helping them to build a unique place of recovery: the “City of Joy”.

On a plot close to the hospital, dozens of workers are measuring, hammering and mixing cement in the final stages of constructing homes, classrooms and workshops for up to 100 women survivors at a time. When it opens in the spring the City of Joy will be a refuge for women; a town in its own right where they can heal, rebuild and learn new skills to take out into the world again.

The City of Joy also reflects the circumstances of its creation. Sheltered in the hills of Bukavu, the sounds of the call to prayer echo from the nearby UN camp housing Pakistani peacekeeping soldiers, while squatters and refugees jostle for space in the shacks next door.

Unusually, men and women are working on the construction together and one woman rushes forward to announce that for the first time in her life she is wearing trousers. Another asks Dr Mukwege for work as a cleaner. He tells her that she should have higher ambitions, and that women should aim for the same kind of qualified work as men. As he speaks, a large group of workers gather around to listen, balancing plastic containers of cement on their heads. At Dr Mukwege’s urging, the woman agrees to visit his office to discuss further education.

“You see the women working on this building,” Mukwege points out, “They are saying: I protest. I won’t take what is happening to me any more. I want freedom. The war goes on, but their attitudes are changing, and it is the start of a revolution.”

Christine Schuler Deschryver, an imposing Congolese activist and the new director of the City of Joy, is visiting the site with Eve Ensler, the writer of The Vagina Monologues. They agree that the women of DRC are transforming themselves from victims into survivors. “There’s an underlying movement of Congolese women who are ready to take their power,” says Ensler, whose V-Day movement to end violence against women has been instrumental in the concept and funding of the project. “They are no longer just passive recipients of violence, and the City of Joy is a cementing of that.”

The women of the DRC do need a place of hope, and a vision for the future. Twelve months ago Dr Mukwege went to the UN with a sense of optimism that the worst of the violence had passed. One year later in Bukavu, that optimism has vanished.

Although his office is full of awards from the humanitarian community, neither gold-plated trophies, nor talks with the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, have prevented another outbreak of fighting that brings around 15 new women a day to the clinic.

“It’s getting worse,” Mukwege says, peering over his glasses in between brief consultations with the women who line up on the low wall outside, and then present themselves at his desk unannounced. “We are now seeing cases again of women who have been raped for 24 hours, 48 hours. If the fighting continues there is no solution for our women.”

Since the mid-1990s more than five million people have been killed in a conflict fuelled by warring militias, ethnic tensions and opportunistic neighbouring countries fighting over the country’s gold reserves and vast mineral wealth. Women have paid the highest price. According to the UN, sexual violence is higher in the DRC than in any other country.

Conservative estimates report that more than half a million women have been raped overall, with an average of more than 40 a day in South Kivu. A new offensive by the DRC army and UN forces in March to rid the area of Rwandan FDLR fighters set off a fresh wave of killing and human rights abuses. In the first nine months of 2009, more than 7,000 rape cases were recorded in Kivu. A Human Rights Watch report on the offensive states: “Most of the women and girls were gang raped, some so violently that they later died.”

“The indifference the world has shown to the Congo is repulsive,” says Dr Mukwege. “This is an economic war driven by rape. People say that it is complicated, but how hard can it be to send a few thousand troops to stop a relatively small number of fighters who have killed millions?”

In a recent visit to the area Hillary Clinton listened to victims’ stories with tears in her eyes, but the aid she promised has yet to materialise, and the Secretary of State warned Dr Mukwege that she “could not work miracles”.

The surgical work that Dr Mukwege performs in reconstructing raped women is highly specialised but, as he points out, it is the nature of their ordeal that has made it so. Ruth was 13 when she arrived at his clinic. When one of the groups of armed rebels came to her village they rounded up her family, raping both Ruth and her mother before proceeding to kill both her parents in front of her.

Like many girls, Ruth was held in the forest as a sex slave where she was tied to a tree and raped by passing soldiers for several days at a time. Months passed, but eventually Ruth was released and allowed to begin the arduous journey to Panzi hospital. She was pregnant.

“It was tragic,” Dr Mukwege says. “The baby was stillborn. But her internal injuries were too severe to repair. As her doctor I am pleased that I could restore urinary continence and fit her with a colostomy. But she does not have a vagina, she will never have a period. In her own eyes she is no longer a woman.”

Dr Mukwege is the man who puts women back together, performing up to ten operations a day in a hospital that has only one ultrasound machine and survives on charitable funding.

The most inoperable are often little girls, some of whom remain incontinent. “When I come to work on reconstruction, there is nothing left to work on.” Mukwege throws up his hands to symbolise the hopelessness of some of his cases. “This is not rape as people in the West understand it. This is a weapon of war, a deliberate strategy designed to destroy our communities by leaving our women disabled and ostracised from their families and neighbours.”

Until work began on the City of Joy, even the women who made their way to Panzi found that they had few options for the future. “I was valueless,” said Erisa, another young victim. “I escaped and went back to my village, but my neighbours said I smelt. I couldn’t work. They said I was a Rwandan rebel prostitute. I was pregnant by my rapist, but it was a great shame.”

Now she lives with her little girl and a community of other survivors in a half-built house close to the site of the City of Joy. The women sleep on wooden boards and rags, and exist on what they can make from selling home-made soap and clothes pieced together on sewing machines donated by V-Day.

All the girls were taken from their homes and held as sex slaves in the bush. One young woman, Nyamgoma, takes off her sock to show a mutilated leg, cut away by the rebels who tried to stop her escaping. She is in constant pain but cannot afford an operation — even so, she says that she is pleased to be with other women survivors. Their group is called “I Will Not Kill Myself Today”.

On a drive out of town the City of Joy team visits the “Green Survivor Mommas” — a group of older women who meet to learn agricultural skills and farm a small plot with cabbage, sweet potatoes and goats. The scene seems tranquil, but in the forested hills beyond rebel fighters are holding other women hostage. A motorcade sweeps past, ferrying dignitaries to a meeting with President Kabila to discuss the security situation. It is a war in which horror, beauty and politics occupy the same space.

“Women in the Congo have been humiliated, and men have been destroyed too,” Dr Mukwege says. “How you can watch your mother being tortured and raped and not see her with different eyes? This is not about feminism, this is a crisis for humanity.” In particular, he believes, the international community should exert greater pressure on Rwanda to control the FDLR fighters. In the UK, campaign groups including Congo Now and V-Day UK hope to make the DRC’s conflict minerals as unacceptable as blood diamonds.

Working at the heart of such issues is dangerous, but although he is often threatened, Mukwege says that his religious convictions and his wife, Madeleine, give him the support to keep going. “Having four daughters and a wife is like having a female backbone,” he says, spreading his fingers to indicate a spine. Of his wife he shyly adds, “she is beautiful, and we are still lovebirds”. His children call him “doctor without borders” because he treats patients who turn up at their house at all hours.

“Women in Africa already have the answers,” Mukwege says, “I am just here to help them on their way. Life will start for these women when we have peace and they realise what they have lost. When they see that they don’t have a community any more. They don’t have a family any more. What they once had doesn’t exist any more. Then the hardest part of my job will begin.”

Back at the City of Joy, Eve Ensler and Christine Schuler Deschryver are admiring the work of the group I Will Not Kill Myself Today and sharing stories. In a lighter moment they tease each other about who is the brawniest when one of the women steps forward, grins, and flexes her formidable arms: “Look at my muscles,” she says, “I am so strong.”

For more information about the City of Joy, visit