Healing Rape Survivors in the Congo

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Eleven years ago, the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, the capital of the South Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was built to be a maternity center—a place of healing for women displaced by war. Its medical director, Denis Mukwege, an obstetrician and gynecologist, wanted to stem rising maternal and infant mortality rates and repair fistulas. As the hospital opened, however, it became evident that it would fulfill a different need: Today 70 percent of its patients are survivors of rape.

Tens of thousands of women and girls have been raped in the Congo in the past decade. In South Kivu alone, 14,200 rape cases were registered between 2005 and 2007. This extreme violence is not a side effect of a country in conflict: It is “the use of rape as a strategy,” reports The Progressive (Nov. 2009). Local armed groups and Rwandan militias use rape to systematically destroy communities. Populations are terrorized; families collapse as a result of the stigma; sexually transmitted infections spread. At the Panzi Hospital, one of three places in South Kivu equipped to handle such physical and psychological trauma, staff admit around 20 survivors a day. A third of them need major reconstructive surgery. One in ten will return after she is raped again.

Mukwege is undaunted. “[He] personifies a social movement that is taking place on the ground,” Brad Macintosh of SAFER (Social Aid for the Elimination of Rape) tells The Progressive. “He’s far too humble to admit it . . . but he is leading this social movement.” At Panzi, treating survivors of rape goes beyond tending to physical and psychological trauma: It means preparing for women’s reentry into society by coordinating with vocational programs; challenging a legal system that allows rapists to rape with impunity; and campaigning to raise global awareness.

“People need to see this,” Mukwege tells The Progressive. “I don’t want the U.S. or Canadian governments to say they don’t know. We appreciate the supplies and aid because there are shortages of everything here . . . but what we really need is to stop the war.”