Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War

34464167621_9a17386be9_k“The world is not a good place, it is full of violence and suffering.” These were the words with which Dr Denis Mukwege, a doctor from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, opened his speech to the delegates of this year’s Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation.Dr Mukwege knows what he is talking about. For almost twenty years, he has been taking care of women and children who are being raped in the forgotten conflict that is taking place in the east of DR Congo. With no outlook for peace, the costs of the partisan group’s fighting are covered from the illegal mining of diamonds and other minerals that are essential for the production of computers, tablets and mobile phones. The abundance of minerals the country has been endowed with is a curse instead of a blessing in this case.

Violence against women as a destructive weapon

Rape is used as an extremely destructive weapon of war in this conflict. It is not committed to satisfy sexual desire; the aim is to cripple, mutilate the women. Since the local women are often the most powerful economic force, this causes communities to fall apart. Among the victims are not only adult women, young and old, but also little girls, including infants. The estimated number of victims is over 300,000, and the number rises every day. Some women are raped repeatedly. Violence against women has become standard behaviour in the society and the perpetrators are seldom punished.

Panzi Hospital

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When Dr Mukwege decided to study medical school, he had no idea he would once become an expert in the surgery of mutilated female genitalia. The first hospital he worked in was destroyed in the fights, with many doctors, workers and patients dead. The growing violence committed against women shocked Dr Mukwege so much that he decided this issue was what he wanted to focus on. In 1999, with Swedish help, he founded the Panzi Hospital, its aim being to provide help (primarily medical) to the victims of sexual violence. The girls and women usually have to undergo several surgeries before they are able to live a normal life again (with urine and stool passing through the correct pathways in a controlled manner, for example). Many remain infertile for the rest of their lives. Apart from the medical help, they are also given access to psychological, social and legal assistance. Many of the women are not able to return home following the treatment, often because they have been expelled by their families. These women get a chance to receive education and they are supported in gaining economic independence. Over 50,000 victims of rape have been treated in the hospital since its founding.

An endeavour to move the consciousness of world leaders

Apart from running the Panzi hospital and working as a surgeon, Dr Mukwege also spends a great deal of time travelling around the world trying to raise public awareness of the conflict taking place in the east of DR Congo. One of his aims is to ensure that violence against women, committed during war conflicts around the world, is given the same amount of attention as the use of chemical weapons, for example. Shortly after Dr Mukwege gave his speech at the UN, in which he also criticised the government of Congo, he survived an attempt on his life, in which his co-worker was killed and his family were taken hostage. Following this incident, Dr Mukwege moved to Belgium with his family, but he returned, responding to the pleas of his former and current patients. He continues working at the Panzi hospital, and he also keeps drawing the attention of statesmen to the issue.

Donating to the Panzi Foundation is a way to help

Helping directly in DR Congo is possible through the Panzi Foundation, which provides funding for the Panzi hospital. The ECCB has decided to support this foundation in a special collection that will be taking place in all congregations until the end of 2017. (Account number: 7171717171/2700, variable symbol: 911701).

For more information on the activities of the Panzi Hospital and Panzi Foundation, visit www.panzifoundation.org.

It should also be pointed out that a few years ago, a Belgian film named L’homme qui répare les femmes: la colère d’Hippocrate (The Man Who Repairs Women: Hippocrates’ Wrath) was produced, capturing the violence against women in DR Congo and Dr Mukwege’s work.

Olga Navrátilová, member of the Lutheran World Federation Board, participant at the LWF Assembly in Windhoek, Namibia, May 2017