“We are all connected”: Dr. Mukwege and the quest for women’s health in Congo

Valentina Stackl

“Nous sommes  connectés  (we are connected)”- Dr. Denis Mukwege

I had the great honor of meeting this year’s Wallenberg medal winner, Dr. Denis Mukwege, personally a couple of weeks ago. Working for the communications department at the School of Public Health definitely has some perks!  The Wallenberg medal is a human rights award bestowed by the University of Michigan and named after an alumni who saved hundreds of Jews from death during the Holocaust. Its recipients personify the spirit of Raoul Wallenberg, and how one person can truly make a difference. Dr. Mukwege is an OB/GYN, a surgeon and the director of Panzi Hospital in the city of Bukavu in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. He focuses on restoring women’s bodies and spirits after violent gang rapes by armed militia and soldiers.

Dr. Mukwege

The conflict in the Congo is reported to be the deadliest conflict in the world since WWII, with nearly 6 million people dead so far and no real end in sight. Hundreds of thousands women and children have been brutally raped in the last 15 years. Part of the conflict stems from unrest and civil war in neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, and part stems from the urge to control the rich minerals in Eastern Congo, such as gold, coltan, copper, cobalt, uranium, tin, tungsten and tantalum, which are used in cell phones and other electronics used all over the world, including the United States. Dr. Mukwege explained that the public rapes of women in their own villages not only destroy the identity of the victim, but by  forcing the women to escape their homes out of shame and because they are often no longer accepted by their husbands and families, it also destroys the  social fabric of the village itself. By unsettling the social structures, families, and villages the perpetrators can now access the rich natural resources near the destroyed homes.

Dr. Mukwege in front of Panzi hospital

What struck me the most about Dr. Mukwege was how soft spoken he was, he was very gentle, very kind. Although my french is pretty terrible, I definitely understood one thing he said: “nous sommes  connectés” which means “we are connected.” It is so easy to close your eyes to atrocities committed by the thousands, at least for me, I can’t quite conceptualize what hundreds of thousands of rapes look like, and I’d rather not think about it. Dr. Mukwege made the point, however, that we are all connected, and not just in a humanitarian taking care of your fellow human way, but in an economic sense. Most of the materials produced for our cell phones and laptops are harvested from Eastern Congo. Our consumption of these products somehow are fueling the rapes and murders committed against the Congolese.

Congolese men working in terrible conditions to find gold

Dr. Mukwege congratulated us for wanting to learn more about the conflict in his country. He also warned us to no merely sit with the information but to act, to do what we can to help. Here are some things you can do:

Join the movement for peace in DRC: www.friendsofthecongo.org

Run for Congo Women in Ann Arbor: groups.to/runforcongowomen-annarbor

Call and write President Obama and tell him to enforce the 2006 Law No: 109-456, which he sponsored as a senator: Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act

Talk about Congo and raise awareness!

One thought on ““We are all connected”: Dr. Mukwege and the quest for women’s health in Congo

  1. There will be more about Dr. Mukwege in the spring issue of Findings magazine. His important work fits so well with UM SPH’s mission: “…to create and disseminate knowledge with the aim of preventing disease and promoting the health of populations in the United States and worldwide. We are especially concerned with poor, often minority populations, who suffer disproportionately from illness and disability.” More: http://www.sph.umich.edu/about/

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