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Dispatches: Cheers for A Congolese Hero

In a move that will surely draw a collective cheer from thousands of women whose lives have been destroyed by brutal sexual violence, the European Parliament announced that Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege won the 2014 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. I am cheering with them.

Dr. Mukwege, who specializes in gynecology, has been on the frontlines of the fight against sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has treated countless victims of sexual violence in his hospital in Bukavu, eastern Congo.  He has been threatened, his family has been attacked, yet he continues the arduous task of mending the bodies of women and girls ravaged by brutal rape. He does it with kindness, grace and compassion.

He has also chosen not to remain silent. Dr. Mukwege lobbies tirelessly to end sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war. No other Congolese man has spoken out so often and so forcibly on this issue.

Sexual violence in Congo is at epidemic proportions. There are no exact statistics, since collecting data in a war zone is exceedingly difficult, but various studies confirm the figure is in the hundreds of thousands. Many of the victims have been gang-raped. Those attacked range from the very young to the very old. 

From the horrifying statistics stands one extraordinary man who decided to speak up and who encouraged others to do the same. Today Congo has a strong law criminalizing sexual violence and improved medical treatment and social programs for many victims. Of course, the battle is far from won. Sexual violence continues and only a handful of senior level perpetrators have been held to account.  Human Rights Watch continues to advocate that those most responsible are investigated and brought to justice.

But without Dr. Mukwege’s courage and the example he set, these modest steps forward might not have happened at all.

Dr. Mukwege is a hero to thousands of Congolese women and girls.  Today that heroism is recognized beyond Congo’s borders.

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