“When a woman is raped, it is not just a non-consensual sexual act. I would even go further, rape is not a sexual act. It is not a sexual act, it is denial of a woman’s humanity. It is a refusal to allow a woman ownership of her body, her mind. Destroying a woman’s genitals is to deny a woman her right, her greatest happiness and honour, that of giving life, of being the mother of humanity”– Dr. Denis Mukwege
Dr. Denis Mukwege founded Panzi hospital in 1999 to help restore hope in the life of sexual violence victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since opening its doors, Panzi hospital has helped over thirty thousand rape victims undergo life saving procedures. Located in the remote town of Bukavu, the hospital serves as a safe haven for women and children who have been victimized by the rape crisis in the country.
Dr. Mukwege’s life’s work was on display at the opening night of this year’s African diaspora film festival in New York City. Directed by Thierry Michel, ‘The man who mends women: the wrath of Hippocrates‘ looks at Dr. Mukwege’s fight to end violence against women and children in the DRC.
For many people in the audience, this was the first time they were able to witness Dr. Mukwege’s personal journey and his efforts to increase protections for women and advocate those responsible for sexual violence be brought to justice.
“The first thing was to return to Emira where the first massacre took place from the first civil war in Congo, they killed people on their bed at his hospital. It was done by Cabilla, from the rebellion that caused the fall of Mogutu. He had never talked about what Cabillas troops had done. That’s when the violence started and that’s what started the cycle of impunity. He has never spoken of it before.” – Director Thierry Michel
This cycle of impunity left the audience near tears. The victims were women, young girls and even children under the age of five. Chouchou Namegabe, a women’s right activist and journalist, interviewed these women to help bring awareness to the crisis.
“Rape was used as a war strategy and nobody was talking about it. It wasn’t just the rape, there were other atrocities that followed. For example they would rape women and then penetrate them with a branch then remove it with their uterus attached. Sometimes they would attach women to two trees and rape them over a period of time and at times they would do it in front of their husband and children.”
In the documentary, much of the violence is blamed on the illicit exploitation of the country’s natural resources. The men use rape to create fear and run people off their lands in order to steal its resources. The number of rape victims shown in the film was excruciating to watch, while the sexual abuse of children was even more heartbreaking.
Journalist and feminist activist Gloria Steinem who was in the audience said although she thought the documentary “covered a lot of territories,” she felt it neglected to explore how the country’s current state can be blamed on a colonial past that killed over 10 million people under Belgium’s King Leopold II.
“At the same time we take responsibility for our actions in the present, I think we must understand that these issues of violence are very very long rooted. We need to consider that when we look at other continents too, when we look at Africa, in this case, especially the Congo, which is the Belgian Congo, was the epicenter of violence and genocide.” – Gloria Steinem
As the screening of the documentary ended it was discussions happening at the opening night reception that made the night even more memorable. Steinem, who’s been an activist her entire life, said she was also concerned the documentary ended without offering a way for people to help.
“The things it lacks, and that we as activists like to add, is, what can we do? It leaves people in such a stage of anger and shock and despair that without some actions we can take, it we lead to, I fear, it might lead to more acts of despair and there are actions that we can take.” – Gloria Steinem