Nobel Laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege on Justice for Survivors of Sexual Violence


This is the transcript of a Seeking Peace podcast episode featuring Dr. Denis Mukwege.


Melanne Verveer From Georgetown University, this is Seeking Peace. I’m Melanne Verveer.


Dr. Denis Mukwege “The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to us today will only be of value if it leads to concrete change in the lives of victims of sexual violence all over the world and the restoration of peace in our countries.

So, what can we do?”

Melanne Verveer What can we do? This is what Dr. Denis Mukwege asked us all when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018. It recognized his work with survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dr. Mukwege has worked as a gynecologist and surgeon in the DRC treating survivors of rape for over 20 years.

I had the privilege of visiting Panzi Hospital for the first time almost ten years ago and meeting Dr. Mukwege then and many times since so I can attest to his lifesaving work and the difficulties he faces on a daily basis. 

Not only does he work in an active conflict zone, but he is also the target of death threats.

In September, hundreds of protestors gathered in Bukavu — the city in Eastern DRC where Dr. Mukwege lives — to express their support for him.


Reporter: The demonstrators, mostly women — with whistles in their mouths and holding banners — chanted songs in which they demanded the safety of gynecologist Dr. Denis Mukwege. They were escorted by the police.

Melanne Verveer The threats against Dr. Mukwege are so serious that the U.N’s MONUSCO peacekeeping forces have been brought in to protect him. I spoke with Dr. Mukwege recently about why some people want to stop his healing work. It should be noted that what he shares may be distressing for some of our listeners.

Melanne Verveer So, Dr. Mukwege, it is so good to be back with you and to spend this time with you. I want to ask you about your growing up. I understand that as a child, you traveled with your father, who was a pastor. He was comforting the sick and the dying. And during those trips with him, you saw many women in labor who had nowhere to safely deliver their babies. What impression did this have on you as a child? 

Dr. Mukwege I still remember to this day. I saw a child dying. He was feverish, in pain, and he had respiratory issues. My father was asked to go and pray for him. He prayed for the sick child and after praying, he said goodbye. And I thought that wasn’t enough — because whenever I was sick, if I had any health issue, my dad, of course, prayed. But he would also give me medicine to make me feel better. And so at that point I asked my father: “Why did you just pray for this child? Why didn’t you give him medicine, like you do for me?” 

My father said: “Because I’m not a doctor.” This came as a shock to me, I said “A doctor?” I didn’t understand what he was saying. So he explained that in order to prescribe medicine to someone, you have to be a doctor. And in order to be a doctor, you need to get the proper education. So I told my father: ”Ok, then I will become a doctor. You’ll pray and I’ll give the medicine.” 

Melanne Verveer And when you went on some years later, after understanding your father’s motivation and the inspiration on you, you founded Panzi Hospital, but the hospital ended up taking an unexpected turn. Tell us about the moment when you became very aware of sexual violence as a weapon of war. 

Dr. Mukwege The hospital wasn’t inaugurated yet when the first woman came. This woman knew there was a doctor, a surgeon, a gynecologist who worked there and she’d been injured. So, people brought her, and we admitted her. She had been raped… extremely violently. It was the first time that I saw something so horrific. But in my head, I imagined that those who committed this crime must have been mentally ill, people who had completely lost their minds. So at first, I thought it was a one-off act.

But three months later, I began to wonder, because I had just treated 45 women in the area where I lived. I had worked as a doctor for more than fifteen years and within the span of three months, I treated 45 women who had been raped. 

Melanne Verveer Congo would, for years continuing to this day, be mired in conflict. And much of that conflict was targeted on women. 

Dr. Mukwege Unfortunately, 20 years later, we are still going down the same path. Quite simply, their bodies are turned into a battlefield and unfortunately those who commit these acts live with total impunity. We have treated babies who are six months old, but also elderly women over 80 years old. 

That’s when I really began to understand that there was something abnormal happening in the region. Women’s bodies are being subjected to these atrocities, to these barbarities.


Melanne Verveer When Dr. Mukwege built Panzi Hospital in 1998, it was originally created to serve maternity patients. But throughout the years, as more and more survivors of rape arrived, it shifted gears to focus on healing and supporting women who had experienced sexual violence. Many of these women ended up helping Panzi expand its work. One of the many women Dr. Mukwege has helped is Tatiana Mukanire.

Tatiana Mukanire Notre slogan dans le mouvement de survivantes, c’est: “Ensemble nos voix sont plus fortes que le silence.”

Melanne Verveer Tatiana went to Panzi Hospital for treatment after surviving sexual violence in 2010. Over time, she began to trust the Panzi team and became more than a patient. In 2017, she started working with Panzi and the National Movement of Survivors in the DRC. They provide psychosocial support for survivors and help them reintegrate into their communities through workshops, legal support and job opportunities.

Tatiana Mukanire We want to raise awareness in the community so that they understand that rape is not something we should keep to ourselves. The victim did not want to be raped, she never asked to be raped and the victim deserves to be given her rights back. We also raise awareness among survivors themselves so that they can understand that they must empower themselves. They must break the silence regarding sexual violence.

Melanne Verveer Dr. Mukwege’s team has treated patients who have survived unspeakable horrors. But over time, they’ve managed to build trust, care, and even friendship with their patients. Dr. Neema Rukunghu has been working at Panzi for the past thirteen years, as a gynecologist and medical coordinator. The story of one patient in particular stands out to her. 

Dr. Rukunghu There was a young woman, almost 24 years old, who we cared for here a few years ago. She’d been the victim of sexual violence after being taken to the forest. She got pregnant after being raped. She gave birth without any assistance in the forest. The baby died. She developed a fistula. 

When she arrived at the hospital, this 24-year-old young woman weighed 17 kilos … 17 kilos!  She was practically a zombie. It really was a dying woman who had arrived at the hospital. And this young woman had the strength to want to survive. And just by showing her love, empathy, by caring for her, bathing her, and feeding her, almost six months later, she was able to benefit from an initial intervention. Almost three months after that, after a second intervention, she was released from the hospital weighing 47 kilos. And she had an amazing smile. Now she stays in touch, she calls us, she’s married and already has a child. That’s one of the positive experiences I’ve lived in the ward. There were many, but this story has had a profound impact on me.

Melanne Verveer  Dr. Mukwege has worked with many survivors whom he vividly remembers. 

Dr. Mukwege I can give you an example that has always stood out to me. A woman returned and said, “My husband kicked me out of the house after I was raped. But after being treated, I started a small business and today I was able to build my own house. And I am very proud and very independent because now I live in my own house.” And then she showed me the certificate of the house. 

This woman was so proud to show me her home title and to live so independently that she asked us to go to court with her to file a complaint against the soldiers who had raped her.

Melanne Verveer I think Panzi’s a miracle in the midst of an ongoing, terrible war. And you just described that for each woman, she bears the physical scars, the terrible health, unspeakable health consequences of what happened to her. But she has to be healed holistically, which is what you focus on, the psychological care, the dealing with trauma, the dealing with the economic needs so that she can go back and have a life again with dignity. And I remember you once told me that when it came to reparations women wanted a normal life again. 

Dr. Mukwege When we talk about reparations, we have to come to understand that we must go beyond material compensation, beyond giving a few banknotes or donating material goods to women. 

That’s just a small step. But the big step is to implement reparations that ensure that these atrocities perpetrated against women can no longer happen again. So that they are not repeated against the children that will be born from these women. 

And today, globally, we have created a fund. The fund has been accepted by United Nations Resolution 2467 and it allows countries to come together and have a Global Fund for survivors.

Melanne Verveer I wanted to ask you about the Mapping Report by the U.N. High Commissioner on human rights when you were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with the Yazidi activist Nadia Murad, back in 2018. Much of your Nobel lecture also focused on this Mapping Report, which in many ways explained no fewer than 617 war crimes, crimes against humanity, even perhaps genocide. Can you explain why this is important? 

Dr. Mukwege I believe that my passion for justice stems from a single fact: these crimes have been happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo for 25 years. And as I just told you, 25 years later, we still have unpunished criminals who continue to commit these crimes. You are not going to find many conflicts in the world, past or present, where people take women, and bury them alive. 

These crimes? They only happen here in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or maybe under the likes of Pol Pot. But these are indescribable crimes — burying women alive. I have published articles about the rape of  babies under five years old. I have done studies on up to 3,000 children. And in the scientific literature, there is nowhere else where babies under 5 suffer rapes and atrocities like what babies endure in the Democratic Republic of Congo. So I think that all of these questions, which are documented in a report not made by NGOs, not made by partisan organizations, but a report that is made by the most professional organization, the one we can trust the most – the United Nations – which has gathered information, which has listened to testimonies… I think it is extremely dangerous for our humanity when we have crimes against humanity, war crimes described in these reports, crimes that could even be considered genocide and we feel at liberty of putting these reports in a drawer. 

What comes out of all of this? Ten years after these reports were published, the same crimes are still being committed. 


Melanne Verveer The inaction on the mapping report has led to protests in the DRC, organized by the Panzi Foundation. Our producer Colette Salima was in Bukavu on October first. She was there to cover an event that intended to draw attention to the fact that it had been 10 years since the UN Mapping report was first published, and justice has yet to be served.

Colette Salima The demonstrators, dressed in black, hold banners which read “Support the publication of the Mapping report.” “Yes to justice” and “We demand the creation of the International Criminal Court for the Congo.” These demonstrators chanted songs in which they support the fight of Dr. Denis Mukwege, who calls for justice for the victims of serious violations and mass crimes in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. For Thérèse Mema, head of the Olame Center, violence against women was used as a weapon of war during the period of political instability in this country. Now, it is time for their voices to be heard and for justice to be served. 

Thérèse Mema This report describes the human rights violations that were committed during the conflict. Unfortunately, this report was never properly used in service of justice and reparations. This is why we’re protesting. We want everyone to be aware of the report and that we want justice. And that’s why women have taken to the streets.

Melanne Verveer So Dr. Mukwege, you have received death threats for your work. For some reason, people are threatened by what you do in your work of healing. And I wonder how you stay resilient, how you stay persevering, how you stay hopeful, because this has been very difficult on you and your family. 

Dr. Mukwege I am so small, I realize that I represent nothing if I compare to the resilience, the strength of women to be able to move forward – especially when I see their capacity to love, their ability to continue to love despite everything they go through in society. But they are able to continue to love. And I believe that what I can give is very, very small compared to what women give. 

When I was attacked in my house and my guard was killed, it was a very deep trauma for me, for my wife, for my daughters who were at the scene. It was a deep trauma and for the first time, I decided to leave Congo. But the ability of women to call for my return, to say “We’re going to work for your protection.” Women who have nothing, but who assure us that “We will feed you, we will protect you. And we can assure you that before anything happens to you, they’d have to kill all of the women standing guard outside of your home, 24 hours a day.”

Melanne Verveer We can’t give up. And I know you won’t give up. And so let me ask you in conclusion, what can we do? What can all of us listeners do to help Panzi Hospital? Can we make contributions to your work? What is the best way we can support what you do and what Panzi does every day?

Dr. Mukwege  I believe that we need this international solidarity so that criminals can understand that the work that Panzi carries out is not just being done for the sake of one person. This work is being done for all of our humanity, to restore the dignity of women and this is very important. So, thank you very much to all the organizations that, throughout this time, have made sure that all of the staff at Panzi and all of the victims of sexual violence, stay safe. 

Melanne Verveer Well, thank you so much, Dr. Mukwege. You know, you and your colleagues do the hard work. The least we can do, all of us listening to you, is to support that work that you do that is so critically important. You’re an example to all of us. So please stay safe and we will continue to do all we can to support you and your efforts. Thank you so much for being with us.

Dr. Mukwege Merci. 



Melanne Verveer Today’s episode was produced by Caro Rolando and Colette Salima. 

Special thanks to Ngofeen Mputubwele who voiced Dr. Mukwege in English, and to the various podcasters gathered by Paula Rogo from Africa Podfest for also lending their voices to the women featured in today’s episode. Please go to our website or show notes for links to their podcasts from across the African continent. 

We’ve partnered with Mama Radio to provide a French version of our report on Dr. Mukwege’s work. We will post a link to those stories on our website, where you can find all of our episodes:

In our next episode, we honor Human Rights Day by bringing you a special conversation that I had with two distinguished former U.S secretaries of state, Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton. This conversation was recorded in October on the 25th anniversary of the landmark speech Secretary Clinton gave at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women that took place in Beijing. There she famously declared women’s rights are human rights.

Hillary Clinton I’m certainly going to continue to call for women’s rights. But more important to me now is enabling women to have the power to claim their rights. One of the things we saw after Beijing were lots of laws being changed. But the culture, the social, and religious pressure didn’t result in the kind of claiming of rights that women deserved. So we still have a lot of work to do.

Melanne Verveer That’s next time, on Seeking Peace.

The second season of Seeking Peace is a production of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and Adonde Media, in collaboration with Our Secure Future. 

I’m your host, Melanne Verveer. Thank you for listening.