By Emma Batha
LONDON (TrustLaw) – A Congolese doctor, who has treated thousands of survivors of horrific sexual violence, has called for the government to pay reparations to women raped by soldiers.
Denis Mukwege, who runs a hospital for rape victims in the east of the country, also said the government should do more to prosecute rapists, including high-ranking officers, and to end the culture of impunity.
More than half a million women have been raped in Congo, which one senior U.N. official has described as the rape capital of the world.
Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, South Kivu province, assists girls and women who have been the victims of some of the most horrendous violence on the planet. Some have been publically gang-raped and had bayonets inserted into them. Others have had guns shot inside them, destroying their lower bodies. Even babies have been raped.
Although Congo’s war formally ended in 2003, violence has persisted, particularly in the east. Rape has repeatedly been used as a weapon of war to destroy communities.
But despite the general subsidence of fighting, the number of rape victims has not fallen, Mukwege told TrustLaw during a trip to London this week to raise awareness of the issue.
He believes a big part of the problem is that, after the war, ex-rebels were integrated into the army without being vetted. Many were completely brutalised having been recruited to fight as children and encouraged to commit atrocities.
“Many were fighting when they were children,” he said. “They were brainwashed into killing and raping and doing bad things. They have not been rehabilitated and now they are soldiers. They are dangerous.
“That’s one big reason why we don’t see rape decreasing. They don’t change their ways just because they change their uniform. How can you ask someone who was raping yesterday to ensure (women’s) security today?”
Mukwege said urgent reforms are needed in the security services, bringing in people who are well educated about women’s protection and involving women themselves.
Many of the women and children who arrive at Panzi have suffered hideous mutilation and torture. Some have been raped so violently they are left incontinent and unable to bear children.
Mukwege said these patients need far more than medical assistance. Panzi, which treats 3,000 women and girls a year, also provides psychological care and socio-economic support – including education, training and microcredit programmes – to help them rebuild their lives.
Mukwege said a fourth vital step is helping the women seek justice. Two years ago, the hospital opened a legal unit to aid survivors in bringing their rapists to court.
Around 500 dossiers have been compiled, more than 40 convictions have already been secured, and another 150 cases are ready to go to trial.
The next big hurdle is financial reparations, he said.
“We are winning cases but afterwards the government doesn’t pay anything,” he added. “This is sad because the women … should feel that the government recognises they are victims and the way to recognise this is with reparations.
“The government has a responsibility to protect the women, and if the rapists are soldiers and the soldiers are under the government, then the government should take responsibility.”