SEATTLE — In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), gender-based violence, particularly rape and sexual violence, is very prevalent. There is a concerning lack of numbers and statistics on violence against women in the DRC, the culture and societal norms in the DRC prevent organizations and local officials from gathering accurate data on gender-based violence.
There is an intense cultural shame attached to rape. Many hold a societal belief that women and children who have been raped brought it upon themselves and are “damaged” in terms of their value. The violence doesn’t end with rape, as victims are often cast out of their homes, rejected by husbands and relatives, and forced to struggle financially, physically and psychologically.
Reporting rape and sexual violence in the DRC is both legally challenging and culturally stigmatized. While the DRC has a strong law allowing women to prosecute their attackers and seek a conviction in a court, most women do not know of the law, do not have access to lawyers, or do not trust the system enough to seek prosecution.
Faced with these incredibly difficult circumstances, Panzi Hospital, founded by Denis Mukwege in 1999, aims to bring light to the struggles of women and children of the D.R.C. and help better their condition.
In partnership with Panzi Hospital, Mukwege also founded Panzi Foundation DRC and Panzi Foundation USA, foundations that help fund the hospital and raise awareness about issues in the DRC. In order to support the wider Congolese community, Panzi Foundation USA uses strategic advocacy to end the violence in the Congo. Furthermore, Panzi Foundation DRC oversees the Panzi Legal Clinic, Panzi Hospital’s aftercare center (Maison Dorcas), City of Joy and the International Center for Advanced Research and Training.
Using a five-pillar holistic care model, Panzi Hospital treats survivors of sexual violence, cares for their physical healing and provides them with psychosocial and emotional support, community reintegration and legal assistance. From the moment they arrive, women work with doctors to create individualized healing pathways.
Psychosocial and emotional support first occurs at Panzi Hospital, where the psychological unit works with women to assess emotional health before being cleared for surgery, which requires immense emotional resilience. After surgery, the women utilize Panzi’s aftercare center, Maison Dorcas. With individual therapy, often involving treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, group therapy, and music therapy, the women are able to gather in community and build support networks.
Panzi Hospital has 370 doctors, nurses, and support staff dedicated to women’s physical healing, with departments for General Internal Medicine, Surgery, Gynecology and Obstetrics and Pediatrics. In terms of outpatient services, the hospital provides family medicine clinics, a dental clinic, an optometrist, a radiologist unit and a cervical cancer screening program.
Unfortunately, 40-60 percent of the women treated cannot return to their home communities due to their injuries, continued violence and the stigma surrounding sexual violence. The Maison Dorcas aftercare center then becomes their refuge, providing housing, meals and therapeutic care. Through community reintegration programs, Panzi Foundation supports women with 12-month training programs that involve literacy and math classes, job skills training and microcredit.
Under the Panzi Foundation DRC umbrella, the Panzi Legal Clinic helps women prosecute and seek reparations from their abusers. The clinic raises awareness within the community about legal rights and has successfully cut the processing time in sexual violence cases in half through its women’s rights advocacy.
While there are no accurate numbers for the total number of women who have been raped or have faced gender-based violence in the DRC, here are the numbers from the Panzi Foundation’s work:
- From 1999-2015, Panzi Hospital and Foundations have treated 85,864 women and girls for sexual violence and gynecological injuries.
- Panzi Hospital is currently serving the 400,000 people who live in the Ibanda Health Zone in Bukavu, South Kivu.
- 38,554 people living in rural communities have been served by Panzi Hospital and Foundation’s Mobile Clinics.
- The Ushindi Project, in partnership with United States Agency for International Development, has brought holistic healing and sexual violence prevention activities to 7,416 people living in rural communities.
- 18,000 consultations happen each year at Panzi Hospital and its rural mobile clinics.
Panzi Foundation’s incredible work to end gender-based violence is critical to highlight, and it must be emphasized that Panzi Hospital and Foundations’ continuance and success rely on increased support and advocacy.
In 2015, the government of the DRC froze Panzi Hospital’s accounts in response to Mukwege’s criticism of the government. More recently, on April 13 of this year, one of Mukwege’s colleagues, Gildo Magadju Byamungu, was killed in his home for speaking out for survivors of sexual violence. Mukwege’s life has also been threatened, forcing him to flee the country in 2012 until he was able to return under the protection of the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). According to Panzi Foundation USA, this MONUSCO protection has now been withdrawn, leaving both the Panzi Hospital and Mukwege vulnerable to violence and attack.
In order to fight gender-based and sexual violence and expand women’s rights in the DRC, Panzi Hospital and Foundation’s important work must continue and more programs like it must be supported.
To quote Mukwege: “Women in Africa are carrying the family and the economy on their shoulders. If even a single woman is physically harmed and destroyed psychologically, the cycle of violence and poverty is perpetuated. We cannot continue to neglect the rights of more than half the world’s population. We know that when women are healthy and educated, families, communities, and society as whole flourishes.”
– Irena Huang