But the smile usually turned out to be short-lived. “The rapes were so violent and the traumas so severe that medical treatment and kind words alone were not enough. The solution would not be found in Panzi’s operating theatre. We also decided to provide psychological care and help with reintegration into society.”
In many cases, women could not return to their former homes because the community would not support them but rejected and stigmatised them instead. “That is why we gave a woman tools for economic self-sufficiency, so that her social integration became easier. In this way she could provide for her own life and be respected again.”
And then, when women had been physically cured, and had received psychological help and economic support, the anger at the injustice that had been done to them remained. For that reason, Mukwege decided to add a legal aspect to his struggle, in order to strive for justice. “We hired lawyers to help women in their court cases. This is an indispensable step in restoring dignity and empowerment.”
And so the holistic care model progressively emerged – a four-stage rocket for which Mukwege’s hospital is so highly praised. The four pillars of the Panzi holistic care model are: 1) medical care, 2) psychological care, 3 socio-economic assistance and 4) legal support. “Panzi is a one-stop centre because we carry out all the work in one location. This makes care accessible to all women.”
The hospital has now treated some 100,000 patients, more than half of them victims of sexual violence. Since 2016, Mukwege has been working towards the worldwide introduction of this holistic care model and is the main advocate of the fight against sexual violence in wartime. The Postcode Lottery supports the Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation with an annual contribution of €900,000. In 2019, Mukwege was appointed an international ambassador of the Postcode Lotteries.
“It is not only in the Congo that sexual violence is a weapon of war. The same problem arose in Kosovo, and also in Colombia. In Iraq, the same thing happened to the Yezidi. Often, after rape, women end up in refugee camps without any psychological help, which is unimaginable.”
Mukwege is shifting his personal focus to advocacy. “The world must know about the rapes and massacres so that the perpetrators can be brought to justice. As long as rapists and murderers remain unpunished, we will not be able to eradicate sexual violence as a weapon of war, terror and domination. Sacrificing justice on the altar of peace will get us nowhere.”
A lax attitude
In September 2012, Mukwege gave a speech to the United Nations where he condemned the mass rapes and criticised the Congolese government and other countries for their lax attitude. He made a similar appeal at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2018.
He repeated his speech once again when he was a guest at the Swedish Postcode Lottery’s Charity Gala in February 2020. “Tens of thousands of women have been violently raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Experts from the United Nations have drawn up a report methodically describing these most serious crimes. Unfortunately, the UN Mapping report has been on the shelf at the UN for ten years and the crimes remain unpunished to this day.”
This impunity makes Mukwege angry, but also combative. “The perpetrators roam freely among their victims in the Congo. Some travel around the world. I call once again on the international community to support our quest for justice.”
The hospital director has also personally paid a high price for his work. In October 2012, four armed men entered his home, took his daughters hostage and waited for the doctor to return home. Mukwege came home and barely survived the assassination attempt, but his guard had to pay with his life. The doctor was forced into exile in Europe for two and a half months.
How does Mukwege keep hope alive despite the misery and opposition? He points to the story of his patient Monique, a young mother who was raped during the war. “The rape was accompanied by acts of torture. Her husband was murdered, as were two of her children. She was held hostage for months, sexually abused and infected with HIV.”
Hope and courage
Fortunately, the woman managed to escape. “She arrived at our hospital weak and desperate. We were able to help her. Slowly she recovered, first physically, and later also psychologically. Thanks to a loan, she was able to start her own business. That’s how she managed to pay the school fees for her three children. She drew hope from her children. She wanted to live in order to guarantee them a good future.”
“Last year, she came to see me with great joy to show a picture of her daughter’s graduation: she had graduated from university. Monique is a living example of what we can achieve with hope and courage. All women in similar situations are an encouragement to continue. They transfer their strength to me.”