Sakharov laureate Denis Mukwege: “Women’s bodies have become a true battlefield.”

Sakharov laureate Denis Mukwege: “Women’s bodies have become a true battlefield.”

While the European Parliament ‘s President Martin Schulz and the political group leaders made the public announcement of the 2014 Sakharov Prize Laureate on October 21, it was on the 26th of November in Strasbourg that Dr. Denis Mukwege was officially awarded the Sakharov Prize during the lunchtime plenary session.

I had the great privilege to attend his speech from the visitors’ area, witnessing a great moment in history when a fierce advocate of women’s right talked before the EU’s only elected institution, making some 750 MEPs and the Parliament’s visitors think and reflect on issues that often seem excluded from Europe’s daily pressing issues.

It was a unique opportunity to sit next to delegates from the Democratic Republic of Congo who were visibly proud and touched by Dr. Denis Mukwege’s speech, clapping, smiling and finaly singing their national anthem to mark the end of a historic speech that put under the spotlight  the sexual violence that women face in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It was an emotional moment for everyone, no matter if you were a politician, a human rights expert or simply a student who happened to be visiting the European Parliament on that day. The grandeur of the Parliament’s plenary and the significance of the award brought satisfaction to many people, sending a strong signal to the world that war is exploiting women because of their gender and also expose them to a continous breach of their human rights. The whole event was an encouragement to act, to do, to change or at least to help others bring the much-needed change.

As for the speaker, Dr. Denis Mukwege seemed humble, but strong, pleased to be given the opportunity to express the voice of countless women who were previously left voiceless, but he also looked committed, ready to continue his work to improve the life of Congolese women who are refused their basic rights.

“Women’s bodies have become a true battlefield and rape is being used as a weapon of war,” said Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege as he accepted the 2014 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Dr Mukwege was honoured by the European Parliament for dedicating his life to helping thousands of victims of gang rape and brutal sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and he was thankful for that, acknowledging the great responsability that he was carrying on his shoulders.

In his acceptance speech, Dr Mukwege told MEPs that by awarding him the Sakharov Prize, they had drawn “the world’s attention to the need to protect women during armed conflicts, you have refused to be indifferent to one of the biggest humanitarian catastrophes of modern times.”

However, he warned: “This prize won’t have any significance to the female victims of sexual violence, if you won’t join us in our quest for peace, justice and democracy.” Dr Mukwege added: “Together – politicians, civil society, citizens, men and women – we have to draw a red line against the use of rape as a weapon of war.”

2014 Shakarov Prize Laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege and President of the European Parliament Martin Schultz. Photo: European Parliament


Denis Mukwege Mukengere is the founder and medical director of Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Panzi hospital is best known for its gynaecological skills, including fistula repair. Mukwege is training staff to help with these complications. According to the Panzi Hospital website, this is the brief life story of this year’s Sakharov Prize winner.

As a young child, Dr. Mukwege accompanied his father, a Pentecostal pastor, while visiting sick members of the community. This later inspired him to become a doctor. The Swedish Pentecostal mission helped support him in his medical studies. He decided to specialize in gynecology and obstetrics after observing that female patients at Lemera Hospital suffered from insufficient medical care, which caused complications during their deliveries.

“Where are men in this question? We can’t solve this problem if men don’t stand up. They must stand up and tell the men who rape: We do not accept this. If you do not rape but keep silent about rape it means that you accept it.”

Amid the war in eastern DRC, in 1998, he initiated the construction of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. The hospital has become known worldwide for the treatment of survivors of sexual violence and women with severe gynecological problems. Dr. Denis Mukwege has been the recipient of numerous awards and accolades and in 2009 was named African of the Year.

The video represents an exceptional journey into the work and fight of Parliament’s 2014 Sakharov Prize winner Dr Denis Mukwege to help women victims of sexual violence in the DRC.

Dr. Mukwege is a tireless advocate for the rights of women in Democratic Republic of Congo. He has addressed the United Nations General Assembly on the matter and regularly travels abroad raising awareness of the situation in Eastern DRC. In between responsibilities managing and administering Panzi Hospital and overseeing projects at the Panzi Foundation, Dr Mukwege continues to see patients and perform surgery two days a week.

Recognizing that his medical work treats the victims but cannot prevent new violence, Dr. Mukwege has been giving countless interviews to alert the international community about the horrors of the conflict in Eastern DRC.

He pointed out that: “In reality, this conflict is not about ethnicity, but it is a territorial conflict about mineral resources. The region of Kivu is rich in coltan, which is needed for mobile phones and laptops. Without the political will the situation will not change. These underlying problems cannot be solved through my work.”

Dr. Mukwege believes that the DRC needs a professional, predominantly female police force and an army that protects its people and that excludes those who have destroyed the country. Mukwege is afraid that if the international peacekeepers leave the country before a functional army and police have been established, there will be chaos. He also demands an international criminal tribunal for the DRC like those for Sierra Leone and Yugoslavia.

In a speech at the UN on 25 September 2012, Mukwege called for the UN’s “unanimous condemnation of the rebel groups who are responsible for these acts [of sexualised violence]” and for “concrete actions with regard to member states of the United Nations who support these barbarities from near or afar”. He said: “We do not need more proof, we need action, urgent action to arrest those responsible for these crimes against humanity and to bring them to justice. Justice is not negotiable.”

One month after Mukwege’s speech at the UN, five armed men in civilian clothes slipped into his house in Bukavu while he was away. When he returned in his vehicle, they attacked him, but one of his staff, Joseph Bizimana, distracted the murderers and was killed by them. He saved Mukwege’s life. The local authorities claim they found the murderers, but no trial was held, and none of the witnesses were called to testify. Mukwege decided to escape to Europe with his wife and two daughters, but later returned to Congo and now lives and works day and night at the Panzi Hospital, continuously accompanied by two bodyguards. Read more about his work and life here.

Previous Awards and Accolades:

2007 – Republic of France Special Human Rights Prize

2008 – UN Human Rights Prize

2009 – Olof Palme Prize

2009 – African of the Year

2009 – Nobel Peace Prize (nominated)

2010 – Honorary doctorate in medicine at Umea University in Sweden

2010 – University of Michigan Raoul Wallenberg Medal

2011 – King Baudouin International Development Prize

2011 – Clinton Global Citizen Award

2013 – The Right Livelihood Award

  By Roxana Mironescu Freelance journalist, communication professional, blogger and gender equality activist, currently based in Luxembourg.

More articles by Roxana

To tell a woman everything she may not do is to tell her what she can do – Interview with the Centre for Partnership and Equality in Bucharest

Breaking the Cycle UK : making secondary education possible for girls in Bangladesh

Role Models : Interview with Siddika Ahmed, gender equality activist and Breaking the Cycle UK Founder

Right to education : still just a dream for women in some parts of the world

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