Born in Congo on 1 March 1955, Denis Mukengere Mukwege is the third of nine children born to a Pentecostal minister. His upbringing shaped the direction of his life as he chose to pursue medicine to heal the sick people for whom his father prayed. Many of them were women who had suffered complications during childbirth and had no access to specialist healthcare.
Dr. Mukwege graduated with a medical degree from the University of Burundi in 1983 and went on to work as a pediatrician in the rural Lemera Hospital near Bukavu in the DRC. Here he encountered female patients who, after giving birth, suffered immense pain, genital lesions and obstetric fistula due to the lack of proper care. This inspired him to study gynaecology and obstetrics at the University of Angers, France, then completing his medical residency in 1989.
His intentions of using his successfully concluded studies where they were needed most were dashed when violent incidents resulting from the first Congo war caused him to leave the Lemera Hospital to which he had returned. He moved back to Bakuvu and founded the Panzi Hospital in 1999.
Since its inception, Panzi Hospital has treated more than 85 000 patients, many from conflict zones, who had suffered complex gynaecological damage and trauma. An estimated 60 percent of these injuries were caused by sexual violence. It is in this manner that Dr. Mukwege had his focus on reconstructive surgery thrust upon him as he strove to help female victims of sexual violence and genital damaging – a weapon of war in the conflict of the late 1990s.
According to the foundation’s website, the hospital now serves a population of 400 000 as the General Reference Hospital for the Ibanda Health Zone in DRC, with a full range of health services.
“As a direct outcome of the war, maternal mortality was on the rise. The safety of all women and girls were being impacted by brutal forces that ravaged their bodies in unimaginable ways. Dr. Mukwege’s first patient was a survivor of rape, whose reproductive organs had been brutally destroyed. As violence against women and girls escalated dramatically in the context of Congo’s wars, Dr. Mukwege and the staff of Panzi Hospital dedicated significant resources to treating women with fistula and other complex gynecological injuries – both traumatic and obstetric.”
The hospital provides an overall service by not only treating survivors with physical wounds, but also providing legal and psycho-social services to its patients. It provides post-rape medical care for all patients, including those who cannot afford it.
As a result of his work, Dr. Mukwege has been fearless in his efforts to have women protected. He advocates for the prosecution of perpetrators of violence, including the Congolese government, “for not doing enough to stop an unjust war that has used violence against women and rape as a strategy of war” and militia groups laying siege to the eastern DRC.
In October 2012, Dr. Mukwege was violently attacked and his family held at gunpoint in an assassination attempt weeks after a United Nations speech in which he denounced the country’s 16-year-long conflict and called for justice. For safety reasons, he and his family fled the country to Europe for a time but calls to resume his important work led to his return in 2013.
Accolades and Awards
Dr. Mukwege has numerous titles, awards and accolades under his belt. He is on the advisory committee for the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict and some of the awards he has won include the UN Human Rights Prize (2008), Olof Palme Prize (2008), Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur or the Legion of Honour – the highest French order of merit – for military and civil merits (2009), Civil Courage Prize (2013), Human Rights First Award (August 2013), the Sakharov Prize for the Freedom of Thought, received from the European Parliament (2014), Women for Women International “Champion for Peace” Award (November 2015) and the Nobel Peace Prize, shared with Nadia Murad (October 2018).