Denis Mukwege (59) is the latest laureate of the Sakharov prize for freedom of thought 2014, a top European prize for human rights.
Mukwege was announced the winner of the award by the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. The award was handed to him in recognition of his tireless work in the health and care of victims of rape where sexual violation is used as a tool during the civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mukwege’s journey in helping rape victims births from the civil war in the country, where men came in his hospital in Lemera, Eastern DRC and gunned 35 patients in their beds meeting their untimely death. This led the doctor to flee Bukavu, 100 kilometres from Lemera and started a hospital made from tents. In lieu of his professional qualification, he created a maternity ward with an operating theatre which was destroyed in 1998. Through bravery, he reconstructed the Panzi hospital in 1999, where he received his first rape victim. The victim had a sordid story towards her assault, as after they raped her, bullets were pierced into her thighs and genital area. Three months later, higher numbers of women came to his hospital with similar stories of the barbaric acts of war that marred on their bodies.
“Other women came to us with burns” he says in his interview with BBC World Service, “they said that after they had been raped chemicals had been poured on their genitals. This invoked the doctor to realize that this is a strategy, and not just a violent act of war for people to flee from their villages, abandoning their fields, resources and sources of income. “You had situations where multiple people were raped at the same time, publicly – a whole village might be raped during the night. In doing this, they not just hurt the victims but the whole community, which they force to watch,” he adds.
Mukwege’s method in healing the rape victims isn’t only a physical process, but includes psychological, socioeconomic and legal care. The systematic approach of care for victims involves an initial psychological examination which determines whether the victims have enough resilience to withstand surgery. He then moves on to the next stage – which may be an operation or medical care – depending on the severity of the wounds. From here a socioeconomic level of healing is conducted. As most patients arrive with nothing, not even clothing, his hospital has to feed them, care for them, and even empower women through developing skills and putting girls back in school. Lastly, the patients are assisted on a legal level, as some of the patients know who their assailants were and lawyers are able to bring their cases to court.
The atrocities that have hit the DR Congo since 1998 isn’t between tribal differences or religious views, but a war based on economic interests that has women as a target. Today, Mukwege and his colleagues have healed 30,000 rape survivors and still continue to take care of an average of 10 patients a day. Although the war may be over, armed conflict riddles the eastern part of the country engulfing communities with attacks including gang rapes.
Winning the prize does not only bring to his tireless efforts (apart from managing the hospital, Mukwege dedicates his life to advocating women’s rights in international platforms and performing surgery two days a week) but according to Mukwege that the prize would make rape survivors in DRC feel like they are not alone. Next month, the doctor will collect 50 000 Euros prize.
About the award
The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is awarded each year by the European Parliament. It was set up in 1988 to honour individuals and organisations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms. Last year the prize was awarded to Malala Yousafzaï, the Pakistani campaigner for girls’ education.