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Congolese Nobel Laureate Campaigns Against Wartime Rape

FILE - Congolese gynecologist and co-laureate of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Denis Mukwege speaking after accepting his award during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony 2018 on December 10, 2018 at the City Hall in Oslo, Norway.

World-renowned gynecologist and surgeon Dr. Denis Mukwege, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, is calling for an immediate end to sexual violence during conflict and justice for countless victims.

Due to the nature of his work, Dr. Denis Mukwege has received death threats for years. When asked if he is afraid for his life, Mukwege responded candidly: "I am human."

The Congolese Nobel Peace Prize laureate became an expert in the treatment of wartime sexual violence when war in the Democratic Republic of Congo victimized communities. He says he draws strength from the women he has treated.

"The women I'm treating are so powerful," Mukwege said in an interview with VOA's Straight Talk Africa TV program May 18. "What I'm doing is just a small sense if I compare what they [rape survivors have been through] in the situation of conflict where everyone wants to use them."

He is now honoring the women he says inspired him, including his mother, in a new book titled, "The Power of Women: A Doctor's Journey of Hope and Healing."

In it, he argues that women continue to give back and nurture for a greater good despite patriarchal societies that often fail women.

Ukraine, Ethiopia Rape Survivors

Sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war in conflicts around the globe. Mukwege used two examples to illustrate the urgency: Ukraine and Ethiopia.

Before Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, his foundation had established contact with women in Donbas who were raped in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.

There have been more than 700 reports of rape by Russian forces in Ukraine since the February invasion, the Ukrainian parliament's human rights ombudsman said May 9. In northern Ethiopia, both government and Tigrayan forces have been accused of sexual violence.

Mukwege said when rape is used during conflicts, it is "used to humiliate, to just make the so-called enemy to feel powerless, to be in a situation that is completely humiliating and you can't really fight against it. It's a weapon, but it's a strategy of war," he said.

But he said he is heartened by an international outcry about the violence against women in Ukraine. He would like to see the same outcry against atrocities in other parts of the world.

"The international community should react in each conflict because the suffering is universal and the reaction against the suffering or to take care of the suffering people should be also universal," he said.

Mukwege, who met with senior U.S. officials and first lady Jill Biden during his visit to Washington last week, is also calling for more efforts to prosecute perpetrators so women can receive justice.

Justice and Resilience

Death threats against Mukwege at times come from unknown sources and he has been forced to live at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo where he treats rape survivors.

"I can't leave the hospital without an escort. I have the police who are taking care of me," he said. "To get this kind of life living in the hospital with your patients and my family and so on. This is a terrible thing."

Since 1999, Mukwege and his team have treated more than 50,000 survivors of sexual violence at Panzi Hospital, which he founded. The hospital, located in Bukavu, also treats the psychological trauma of women caught up in the ongoing violence between militia groups in the eastern DRC.

Mukwege said those resilient women are the best hope for some of the world's war-torn regions. After they have healed, they demand change.

"When women stand up after being treated, they didn't stand for themselves, they are standing for themselves and for their children, for their family."