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Threats against women’s rights advocate Denis Mukwege are another wake-up call for us all

Last Thursday evening, as many of you will have seen via media reports, a true hero of women and human rights Dr Denis Mukwege narrowly escaped death during an assassination attempt on his life that killed his security guard. Amnesty International is now rightly calling for a full investigation and asking whether his recent criticisms of the Congolese government played a role. Attacks against human rights defenders and humanitarian workers are said to be increasing in DRC, where conflict has raged for years.

Denis Mukwege, winner of many international accolades including the UN Human Rights Award, has long championed the rights of women and highlighted to the world the extent and the brutality of systemic rape against women in the conflict zones of DRC, which he has called “the monstrosity of the century.

I first met Dr Mukwege in Toronto in November 2008 when he gave a series of talks describing the escalation of conflict and of sexual violence as a weapon of war in DRC. Shortly after that appearance, the PLOS Medicine editors wrote an editorial on rape in war condemning the violence and calling for medical professionals, editors, and journalists to use our authority and our forums to “draw the world’s attention to the brutality and intolerability of sexual violence in armed conflicts.”

In December 2009 Dr Mukwege and his colleague Dr Cathy Nangini reported data in PLOS Medicine on the thousands of women survivors of sexual violence that were provided health care and treatment at the Panzi Hospital in South Kivu, DRC, which he founded and remains the medical director. In this article they define a new pathology, “rape with extreme violence” (REV), and describe the physical and mental brutality towards these women, the impacts of the rape and treatment provided, as well as the gaps in health care provided, information, and the international response. They provide 5 recommendations to address REV in DRC:

  1. Ensure that leaders in the eastern DRC and neighbouring regions take responsibility and act to end the atrocities in DRC.
  2. Help create and train a national army and police force that are ready and able to protect civilians.
  3. Develop a mechanism for the traceability of minerals as a way forward for ultimately reducing the reliance of armed groups on DRC’s resources.
  4. Address impunity for sexual violence in the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the current national courts, including the period before the creation of the ICC.
  5. Assist all organizations that provide psychological, medical, legal, and social care to REV survivors.

It is a powerful, saddening, and maddening account of violence toward women and the lack of an adequate international response. I reported earlier that Dr Mukwege said to the audience gathered in Toronto: “it is in every one of us to act to end rape in war.” We must continue to step up our support for the efforts of advocates like Dr Mukwege and the many other humanitarian and rights groups working to end rape in war.



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