On Dr Denis Mukwege winning the Sakharov Prize


“Let the beauty we love be what we do,” said Rumi, the great Sufi poet and jurist.

These words seem a fitting frame for the work of Congolese surgeon and human rights defender Dr Denis Mukwege who was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament on 21 October.

Dr Mukwege is a Congolese gynecologist who founded the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1999, building up its services and vision alongside a dedicated and expert team of Congolese doctors, nurses, counsellors and fellow surgeons.

This work has meant facing the horrors of human cruelty, providing services to the girls and women brutalised physically and psychologically in the fluctuating armed conflict in the region.

Under Dr Mukwege’s leadership, Panzi has built up an integrated medical response, providing cutting-edge surgical treatment for women survivors of sexual violence, alongside HIV response and outreach, treatment of obstetric fistulae, psychological support, initiatives for social and economic reintegration, and in supporting survivors as change leaders.

All of this has been achieved in the context of a volatile security situation for Panzi staff and around the hospital itself.

What is significant about Dr Mukwege is that he is an expert technician but with eyes acutely turned towards justice.

As any doctor knows, alleviating symptoms of a problem is far less effective than treating the cause.

In his vocal advocacy, Dr Mukwege constantly reminds us that what the women of eastern Congo need is not pity, but action to change the political and economic power structures that support armed conflict and result in sustained violations of women’s bodies.

In his statement of thanks on being awarded the Sahkarov Prize, Dr. Mukwege reminded European governments of their own role in finding durable peace in Congo.

In his words: [t]his prize will only have a meaning if you accompany us on the path to peace, justice, and democracy”.

This vein of brave critique is not without its risks. In October 2012, Dr. Mukwege survived an assassination attempt in which Jospeh Bizmana, the guard at his house, sadly lost his life trying to defend him.

A few weeks prior, Dr. Muwkege had given a speech to the United Nations in which he challenged governmental inaction, saying:

"Justice is not negotiable. We need your unanimous condemnation of the rebel groups who are responsible for these acts, we need concrete actions with regard to member states of the United Nations who support these barbarities from near or afar….The great principles of our civilisation decline, they decline through new barbarities, as in Syria or DRC, but also through the deafening silence and the lack of courage of the international community."

We need to remember that the most active responders in the assassination attempt were his former patients – women who walked miles on hearing the news of the threat against his life.

And, when he went into temporary exile, women who harvested food from their small gardens to bring to the hospital for sale as a means of raising funds for his air ticket home.

In Dr Mukwege’s words we always hear a man who stands resolutely alongside the truth that everyday people speak, and with a bravery animated by knowing that change is imperative.

In this age of the celebrity activist, his work is also a reminder of the value of that old tradition of daily, persistent, collective and often dangerous work of solidarity and action towards a more beautiful future.