“Doctor Miracle”: Denis Mukwege, Healing Women, Children, and Communities

Denis Mukwege | Courtesy of BBC.com

In what has been called the “rape capital of the world” by a top UN official, Dr. Denis Mukwege offers hope to women whose attacks destroyed their bodies and now their lives. Before filling a desperate need and specializing in rape trauma surgery, Dr. Mukwege aspired to help women of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by providing better maternity care. In the DRC, one percent of women die during childbirth (to put it in perspective that is 1 for every 100 which makes Congolese women 8 more times likely to dye than in “developed countries,”  where the number is on average of 12 in every 100,000).1 However, shortly after he founded the Panzi Hospital in 1999, Dr. Mukwege’s life took an entirely different course when his first patient was admitted. Instead of looking to have a baby, she sought treatment after suffering a rape where the assailants, from one of the many military groups in the DRC, had shot her in the genitals.2 Shortly after this event, the hospital cared for forty-eight baby girls, all raped by a local mans army, one of the tens of military, paramilitary, rebels, and foreign militant groups who use terror to displace locals and refugees in an attempt to secure natural resources.3 Luckily, these particular rapes stopped after the hospital and other human rights groups convinced a military court to prosecute the case.

Dr. Denis Mukwege with Women Apart of the Survivors of Sexual Violence Program at the Panzi Hospital | Courtesy of Endre Vestvik

Though Dr. Mukwege did not realize it at the time, founding his hospital in Eastern Congo would help him “become the world’s leading specialist in the treatment of wartime sexual violence and a global campaigner against the use of rape as a weapon of war.”4 Caring for more than 3,500 women per year, and sometimes up to 10 women a day, Dr. Mukwege, as well as 370 doctors, nurses and support staff, do more than simply repair women physically, they also work to improve their lives in many meaningful ways.5 They follow a five-pillar method. The hospital works with each woman to provide physical medical treatment, psycho-social therapy, socioeconomic support and training, community reintegration and, finally, legal assistance in done in the order listed. A senior advisor to Dr. Mukwege, Elizabeth Blackney, describes this program as:

“Once [women] get through [their] psycho social and medical healing, [they] move on and work with our socioeconomic pillar [to] learn literacy and numeracy and education. [Women] have a safe space to learn vocational skills. And then we of course provide legal aid and assistance to help people get justice.”6

This work is not done without risk, however, and, in 2012, shortly after giving a speech at the United Nations in which he called for an end to the corruption within the government of the DRC, and stated not enough was being done to stop “an unjust war that has used violence against women and rape as a strategy of war,” five armed men stormed the Mukwege family compound in an attempt to assassinate Dr. Mukwege, his wife, and two daughters.7 While Dr. Mukwege and his family survived, his trusted friend and bodyguard, Joseph Bizimana, died protecting the family.8

Tweet and Photo from the Panzi Hospital after Learning that Dr. Mukwege was a Co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize | Courtesy of Twitter and Seron Alexandre

Though he fled to Belgium, he returned to the DRC not long afterwards, when women of the DRC sold their harvests and raised money to buy Dr. Mukwege and his family plane tickets back. When asked about his return, Dr. Mukwege told the British Broadcasting Network that “[a]fter that gesture, I couldn’t really say no. And also, I am myself determined to help fight these atrocities, this violence. My life has had to change, since returning. I now live at the hospital and I take a number of security precautions, so I have lost some of my freedom.”9 Despite the danger to his own life, Dr. Mukwege continues to transform the lives of many Congolese women in powerful, positive, and lasting ways. He is the light for thousands of women and continues to champion for the protection of women from current and future horrors that are the hallmarks of the conflict in the DRC since the mid 1990s. Proof of his incredible impacts is a woman named Sarah. Her attackers, after slaughtering her village, tied her to a tree where she was brutally raped by different men for days. When she arrived at the hospital, she was in critical condition, unable to even stand on her own. But, as each day passed, her will to live became stronger, and “[t]oday, Sarah is a beautiful, smiling, strong and charming woman…[who] runs her own business…bought a plot of land…has built a little house [and] is independent and proud.”10 For these efforts and all of his contributions, in October of 2018, he was announced as the co-recipient to the Nobel Peace Prize with Nadia Murad “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.”11

  1. Jackson Sinnenberg, “‘Dr. Miracle’ Is The Co-Recipient Of The Nobel Peace Prize,” NPR, October 05, 2018, Accessed December 06, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/10/05/654699946/dr-miracle-is-the-co-recipient-of-the-nobel-peace-prize; “Maternal Mortality,” World Health Organization, February 16, 2018, Accessed December 06, 2018, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/maternal-mortality.
  2. Jackson Sinnenberg, “‘Dr. Miracle’ Is The Co-Recipient Of The Nobel Peace Prize,” NPR, October 05, 2018, Accessed December 06, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/10/05/654699946/dr-miracle-is-the-co-recipient-of-the-nobel-peace-prize; Dr. Denis Mukwege, “The Nobel Peace Prize 2018,” NobelPrize.org, Accessed April 07, 2019, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2018/mukwege/55721-denis-mukwege-nobel-lecture-2/.
  3. Mewiga Baregu, “Congo in the Great Lakes Conflict,” In Security Dynamics in Africa’s Great Lake Region, edited by Gilbert M. Khadiagala, 59-79. (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2006); Dr. Denis Mukwege, “The Nobel Peace Prize 2018,” NobelPrize.org, Accessed April 07, 2019, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2018/mukwege/55721-denis-mukwege-nobel-lecture-2/.
  4. “Dr Denis Mukwege,” Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation, Accessed December 06, 2018, https://www.mukwegefoundation.org/story/dr-denis-mukwege/.
  5. “Nobel Peace Prize Winner: Denis Mukwege from DR Congo,” BBC News, October 05, 2018, Accessed December 06, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-45759304.
  6. Sinnenberg, Jackson, “‘Dr. Miracle’ Is The Co-Recipient Of The Nobel Peace Prize,” NPR, October 05, 2018, Accessed December 06, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/10/05/654699946/dr-miracle-is-the-co-recipient-of-the-nobel-peace-prize.
  7. “Dr Denis Mukwege,” Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation, Accessed December 06, 2018, https://www.mukwegefoundation.org/story/dr-denis-mukwege/.
  8. “Nobel Peace Prize Winner: Denis Mukwege from DR Congo,” BBC News, October 05, 2018, Accessed December 06, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-45759304.
  9. Sinnenberg, Jackson, “‘Dr. Miracle’ Is The Co-Recipient Of The Nobel Peace Prize,” NPR, October 05, 2018, Accessed December 06, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/10/05/654699946/dr-miracle-is-the-co-recipient-of-the-nobel-peace-prize.
  10. Dr. Denis Mukwege, “The Nobel Peace Prize 2018,” NobelPrize.org, Accessed April 07, 2019, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2018/mukwege/55721-denis-mukwege-nobel-lecture-2/.
  11. “The Nobel Peace Prize” 2018, NobelPrize.org, Nobel Media AB 2019, (Accessed 7 Apr 2019), <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2018/summary/>.
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17 Comments

  • Dr. Mukwege without a shadow of a doubt deserved being a corecipient of the Noble Prize, his work has brought relief to thousands of women who suffered horrible atrocities between rape and beating. However, what is more appreciated about him is his willigness to put his life in danger and his total disregard for threats, this is a man who is ready to sacrifice his life for vulnerable women. absolutely heroic.

  • I love to hear about heroes like this and it truly makes my heart happy to know there are people willing to give up their life for others. It is not his duty to help these women however he made sure it became so. He is very deserving of this Nobel Peace Prize and I’m glad he had the support he needed. The attack on his household saddens me as it is very apparent that there is cruel people who don’t want only abuse the women that the Doctor cures but are willing to cause him and his family harm as well. When does it all stop and how can we prevent more situations like these? Very well written article, loved it!

  • Nice article and congratulations on your nomination. It is so great that this doctor and his staff are in the DRC and trying make women’s lives there better. It is truly terrible that this nation that is rich in natural resources cannot develop them for the increased prosperity of its people because there is so much violence there. This man definitely deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for his work and I hope that he will continue his work for women.

  • I had not heard much about this incredible docotor. It is so amazing to hear that he won a Nobel Peace Prize for his revolutionary work. It is so sad to hear how these woman had to suffer even after being sexual assulted. This article did a great job at highlighting how his work helped many and how deserving he was of getting a prestine prize for everything he did.

  • The work Dr. Denis Mukwege is crucial and thanks to this article, I know more about his efforts. Women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo suffer immensely. And I’m sure winning the Nobel Peace Prize was something Dr. Mukwege did not expect but definitely deserved. It’s unfortunate that he received the prize under these circumstances–such as the climate in the DRC–but fortunately, there are people like him doing the humanitarian work needed.

  • It is unfortunate what happens to women during and after they are sexually assaulted, but luckily there are people like this man who go out and help them. This man’s story is so incredible and inspiring to read. His outreach to all these women who were abused during these times of war is just a good set of miracles at hand. I really have a high respect for someone who puts their energy into such a horrible environment only to bring care where it is needed.

  • While this article is very informative, it is truly disturbing that rape and genital mutilation is very common among the women of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Not knowing anything about this, I think Dr. Mukwege is a pioneer and an advocate for women and the way that men will use rape as a weapon of terror in war. It is saddening to know that he had to take precaution to survive, but he is very courageous for continuing to advocate for this cause.

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