When asked if he is afraid for his life, Dr. Denis Mukwege responded candidly: "I am human." Due to the nature of his work, the renowned gynecological surgeon has received death threats for years.
But the Congolese Nobel Peace Prize laureate said he draws his strength from the women he treats. Patients who come to him to heal after going through unimaginable horrors.
"The women I'm treating are so powerful," Mukwege said in an interview with VOA's Straight Talk Africa TV program. "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 reexamines the agency of women in spaces and platforms where decisions are made and at times despite some patriarchal societies that often fail women, he said, women continue to give back and nurture for a greater good.
Ukraine, Ethiopia rape survivors
Mukwege's work is particularly relevant today as sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war in conflicts around the globe. He used two examples to illustrate the urgency of the issue: 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. Nisha Varia, formerly the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch's women's rights division, told VOA that rape in Tigray is being used as a weapon and is accompanied by ethnic slurs and other degradation.
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, adding that "the case of Ukraine shows us that if there is a will, we have the capacity to stop atrocities."
Mukwege said a universal sentiment connects most women who have been raped, whether he speaks to victims in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere. He said perpetrators leave a sense of fear and that you hear victims saying, "they'll kill me," he said. "Most of the women have the impression that they don't exist at all after being raped."
Mukwege, who met with senior U.S. officials and first lady Jill Biden during his visit to Washington, is also calling for more efforts to prosecute perpetrators so women can receive justice.
"I think that justice is very important. It's not revenge," he said. "Justice is not only pressure against the perpetrators, but justice is needed for victims because in the process of healing, victims need really to be recognized as a victim. They need really to get someone with this power, this authority, to say you are not guilty. It's not your fault."
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, or the DRC, 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 the hospital he founded. The hospital 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. For me, this is really wonderful. Society can't protect them, but when they get healing and stand up, they stand up and raise their voice for all the community."