At a time when armed rebel groups continue to cause violence in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), women in the area have become increasingly vulnerable.
The Atlantic Council’s Africa Center spoke with Dr. Denis Mukwege—world-renowned gynecologist, human rights advocate, Nobel and Sakharov Prize laureate from the DRC—on September 19, 2022 on the sidelines of the 77th United Nations (UN) General Assembly. The conversation was opened by Amb. Mary C. Yates, former US ambassador to Burundi and Ghana and a current member of the Atlantic Council board of directors; the event also included remarks from Director of the White House Gender Policy Council Jennifer Klein and Chief of Peace, Security, Humanitarian, and Resilience Section for UN Women Paivi Kannisto. The event was moderated by Africa Center Senior Director Amb. Rama Yade and Senior Fellow Dr. Michael Shurkin.
Yade opened the discussion by recalling having visited Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital fifteen years ago as French minister; she asked Mukwege how the situation has evolved on-the-ground since then. “I must say that the situation in the DRC has not really become better in the fifteen years since you came by,” said Mukwege. In his view, the violence has continued to result in concerningly high numbers of casualties, acts of sexual violence, and displacements of individuals and communities.
Yade also inquired about the development of the Panzi Hospital in recent years and whether the hospital has the necessary personnel, equipment, and infrastructure to meet the needs of its patients. Mukwege prefaced his response by saying that the staff works “in an extremely difficult context.” However, he went on to highlight positive developments, noting that “at the beginning, I was the only gynecologist. Now, I have trained seven gynecologists.” While the hospital has experienced increases in trained personnel, the violence in the eastern part of the country continues to wreak havoc on communities, specifically targeting women and children. Mukwege explained that “things have advanced at the hospital, but there’s still no solution to the real problem.”
Following these remarks, Africa Center senior fellow Michael Shurkin asked Mukwege about the security situation in the eastern DRC and the effects of the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO). While Mukwege thought that MONUSCO “has not achieved its goal of civil protection,” he firmly believed that “things would actually be much worse” without the presence of the UN Mission. He called for MONUSCO to “reform the security sector,” “ensure territorial integrity,” and include “transitional justice” in its mandate before departing the country.
Shurkin also brought up the ineffectiveness of the Congolese army in quelling the violence and creating lasting peace. Mukwege asserted that the DRC army has adequate resources at its disposal; the main problem, according to him, is “the problem of political will.” “I believe this lack of political will cannot be mistaken for lack of ability,” he said. In all, he stressed the need for change in order to create an army that keeps its people safe.
Jennifer Klein of the White House Gender Policy Council delivered remarks supporting Mukwege’s work in the DRC and across the globe. She started by reaffirming this support: “The United States is grateful for his tireless work to stand with and support survivors of sexual violence in the DRC.” Klein further went on to address the White House’s priorities regarding working to eliminate gender-based violence globally. She highlighted three lines of effort: “support for survivors,” “strengthening accountability for perpetrators,” and “working with multilateral partners to enhance and enforce existing legal frameworks.” Her overarching message demonstrated the United States’ dedication to Mukwege’s work and the greater effort to support women’s rights on a global scale.
Shurkin later brought up mineral wealth in the country and its potential to serve as a source of conflict for competing global powers. When asked his thoughts on this subject, Mukwege noted the correlation between mineral-rich areas and high rates of sexual violence against women. “The victims of sexual violence that arrive at Panzi Hospital often come from zones that are rich in minerals,” he said. He also highlighted his belief in the United States’ ability to mitigate this violence. He noted, “the United States used to have a special envoy for the Great Lakes region, and I think it would be a good idea to reinstate that.” To him, the reinstating of this post would allow greater opportunities for peacebuilding in the region.
Prior to the close of the conversation, Paivi Kannisto of UN Women gave her remarks supporting the work of Mukwege and reiterating the need to include women in peace negotiations. She emphasized the seriousness of the situation in the DRC, adding that one-third of all documented cases of conflict-related sexual violence last year occurred in the DRC. She highlighted the efforts of the UN in supporting women leaders “to participate in peace, conflict resolution, transitional justice, and humanitarian processes.” Kannisto was optimistic that these changes would result in lasting improvements in the situation of women across the globe.
Mukwege ended the conversation by highlighting the importance of women in communities and thus the significant harm done by attacking women. “When you destroy women, you destroy the community,” said Mukwege. His efforts, coupled with the remarks from Klein and Kannisto, demonstrate the commitment of global leaders to mitigate and eliminate acts of violence against women in the DRC and around the world.
Caitlin Mittrick is a young global professional at the Atlantic Council Africa Center and a graduate student at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.
The event will take place during a period rich in diplomatic events, between the opening of the United Nations General Assembly this month and the U.S. Africa Leaders’ Summit in December during a critical period marked by post-COVID-19 challenges and the consequences of the war in Ukraine. For Africa, food insecurity and a increase of energy prices strengthen the challenges faced by the continent while the investment opportunities and the global powers’ competition stress the power of attraction of the continent. As for the DRC, the country is experiencing a turning-point, internally with the ongoing tensions on the democratic front and externally with its neighbors and their role in the East.
The Atlantic Council’s Africa Center is pleased to welcome Dr. Denis Mukwege whose country – one of the largest and least developed countries in Africa occupies a particular role in a strategic region heightened by strong instability. It will be an opportunity to hear his vision and his expectations of the international community, including the United States, given the recent attacks in the East of the DRC in a continuously unstable neighborhood.
The 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly offers a powerful platform to address Congolese challenges and to draw attention on Dr. Mukwege’s advocacy for human dignity and peace. From the Panzi foundation to the prestigious international awards, his action has a worldwide impact.
Amb. Mary C. Yates
Board of Director
White House Gender Policy Council
Dr. Denis Mukwege
Panzi Hospital and Foundation
Read Dr. Mukwege’s bio
In 1999, he founded Panzi Hospital and Foundation and has become the world’s leading specialist in treating survivors of wartime sexual violence, and a global campaigner against the use of rape as a weapon of war. Together with his staff, he has helped to care for more than 70,000 survivors of sexual violence who have received care free of charge. Panzi not only treats survivors suffering from physical wounds, but also provides its patients with access to legal services, socio-economic reintegration opportunities, and psychosocial support. Dr. Mukwege has been fearless in his efforts to increase protections for women and to advocate that those responsible for gender-based violence and sexual violence be brought to justice in DRC and around the globe.
In 2021, he released his book The Power of Women: A journey of hope and healing. Dr. Mukwege is also the co-founder of the Global Survivors Fund.
Chief of Peace, Security, Humanitarian, and Resilience Section
United Nations Women
Senior Fellow, Africa Center
Amb. Rama Yade
Senior Director, Africa Center
The Africa Center works to promote dynamic geopolitical partnerships with African states and to redirect US and European policy priorities toward strengthening security and bolstering economic growth and prosperity on the continent.