8 March 2016
Colleagues and friends,
Denis Mukwege is a hero, and I am delighted that this event gives me the opportunity to discuss his remarkable and inspiring work on International Women’s Day.
In 1999, Dr. Mukwege realised that large numbers of women in the Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo were suffering sadistic sexual assaults. Armed groups had begun a deliberate campaign of sexual violations - and militias, members of the security forces, and civilians were also involved in increasingly widespread and brutal rapes.
The bodies of women were becoming a battlefield, as Dr. Mukwege so strikingly declared. And these crimes were committed in near-total impunity. Even today, sexual violence is brutally widespread in the eastern DRC. And although there has been some progress in bringing the perpetrators to account, it is still far too slow, and most go completely unpunished.
The victims – if they lived – often suffered lifelong pain from the mutilations they had suffered. They felt shamed by the sexual attacks and genital disabilities that had been inflicted on them. In addition to that emotional devastation and physical trauma, they were often rejected by their families and communities.
Dr Mukwege and his staff at the Panzi clinic in Bukavu began to focus on repairing the terrible wounds that so many women had suffered. To date, well over 20,000 women have benefited from that care. But Dr Mukwege is also aware that their needs go beyond the repair of physical damage. So his clinic also offers psychological help, vocational training, temporary housing and legal and social assistance – helping to restore the essential dignity of survivors.
But even this profoundly healing task was not enough. Dr Mukwege is also a powerful advocate for peace, and for women’s rights, in the DRC.
“Rape is not just destroying the bodies of our women and girls,” he has written. “It is tearing apart the very fabric of our communities, destroying relationships between parents and their children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters… it is about … power, greed, malice, desperation and fury. It is about stripping our country of a healthy, stable future.”
Because of his strong advocacy for institutions to hold the perpetrators of rape accountable for their crimes, Dr. Mukwege has suffered death threats and even an assassination attempt. Nonetheless, he has opted to continue working to provide essential care to survivors of sexual violence, and to continue speaking out against these atrocities.
This work cries out for our support. Sexual and gender-based violence is a recurrent concern in the eastern DRC, with hundreds of victims every year. Last year the UN joint human rights office established 17 legal clinics to assist victims, resulting in 130 convictions of perpetrators. We have supported mobile courts, and brought assistance and training to judges, prosecutors, lawyers and doctors as well as equipment to legal clinics and courts, to strengthen their skills and knowledge in addressing sexual violence cases. We are also supporting the deployment of women magistrates to the East of the country. Since January 2016, 16 magistrates have been deployed in sexual violence special cells of six prosecutor’s offices, High Court and peace tribunals.
But the root causes of these attacks go very deep.
Conflict-related sexual violence is one of the most extreme ways in which women’s bodies are instrumentalized. The women are targeted, not because they are part of the conflict, but in order to terrorize, humiliate and weaken their communities.
This is part of a spectrum of violence and discrimination against women which is evident in many societies. In many countries, custom and laws on topics ranging from education to public behaviour and appearance, marriage, employment, inheritance and more, have sharply limited women, assigning them to less choice than men, and poorer treatment. The message is that the dignity of women and girls is not as important as their obedience and submission to gender expectations.
These are wrongs that must be righted. Some time ago, the Queen Mother of Bhutan highlighted the urgency and scope of the task. “The eradication of violence from the lives of women and girls - along with peace, democracy and sustainable development – will become possible,” she said, “when women and girls are valued; when their ability to fully and freely exercise their human rights is wholly supported; when there is equality in the exercise of power and when decisions are made to fully resource comprehensive and evidenced-based interventions.”
Eliminating sexual violence requires us to take a hard look at how our societies are organized. It means effectively combatting all the forms of discrimination and violence that women suffer. It demands that we build environments in which women are empowered to make their own decisions, as fully independent and equal actors.
I am proud to pay tribute to Dr Mukwege’s selfless and fearless contributions to the human rights of women. We are determined to continue this struggle for accountability, and to advance the full equality and dignity of women everywhere.