Dr Denis Mukwege is a gynaecologist who has spent more than 20 years helping victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Impact of COVID-19 on Panzi Hospital
I spoke to him from the Democratic Republic of Congo and began by asking him what impact the Covid-19 pandemic had had on the work of the Bukavu-based Panzi Hospital and the Panzi Foundation in providing medical and social services to women victim of sexual violence.
Dr. Mukwege began by outlining the work of the hospital to set his answer in context:
"The hospital does not only provide medical treatment to victims of sexual violence, but also what we call holistic care, which consists of four pillars: a medical pillar, a psychological pillar, a legal pillar and a socio-economic pillar.
"And it is this last pillar that has suffered greatly during the Covid-19 pandemic, as there was a slowdown in economic activity.
"So all those women who were living with limited resources in terms of their income-generating activities, today we see them coming back to ask us for new support to be able to restart their businesses.
"When women are not economically self-supporting, when they're very poor, they also become more vulnerable to sexual violence."
I asked him if this had meant any changes in the cases that had been arriving at the hospital:
"In the hospital, we observed an increase in the number of rapes of children. And maybe this can be explained by the fact that the children do not go to school at the moment. The parents are more concerned with finding ways to look after and feed them, that the children are left to themselves and they are more exposed to rape.
"It is true that the number of children treated during this period of the pandemic has been higher than usual."
I asked him why he advocated the creation of an international tribunal to deal with the impunity of rape being used as a weapon of war:
"There were hundreds of women who were raped in one night, there were systematic rapes. We saw children, babies, old people, even men who were raped.
"Today the perpetrators of these crimes are known - and yet they go unpunished. These perpetrators are nationals as well as foreigners because, at this time that I am speaking to you, there are foreign armed groups that continue to commit crimes in the DRC.
"We have tried everything, we have tried force, we have tried negotiation, we have tried peace agreements, but it hasn't worked.
"I believe that the only element that has not been used is justice. An international court for the Congo can deal with the "big fish", but we also need to have mixed specialist chambers throughout the Republic."
"And the objective for us is that not only do the public need to know the truth, they also need to be able to say 'never again'."
Global Survivors Fund
A year ago, Dr Mukwege created a Global Survivors Fund to assist reparation projects for survivors of sexual violence. I asked him how it operated:
"For the care of victims of sexual violence, especially in the medical and psychosocial field, we have the continuous support of the European Union. And the objective of the Global Fund is to support reparation projects in the countries, because we believe that if women have the courage to go to court, to be able to file a complaint, they should not be discouraged because afterwards no reparation has been made.
"I believe that, if women have already had the courage to overcome their suffering and to file a complaint, it is our duty and the duty of humanity to help them to go all the way.
"And to go all the way is to help them heal. This healing cannot take place without justice and reparation."
New EU-AU partnership
The European Union and the African Union intend to launch a new partnership in 2021. I asked Dr Mukwege what the priorities for action in countries most affected by conflict and humanitarian crises such as Congo should be:
"Development cooperation on issues of common political interest between Europe and Africa, broader cooperation on migration issues, climate change, peace and security are important objectives.
"I believe that the biggest problem today is implementation; it’s the implementation strategy that suffers.
"If we don't work for peace and security in Africa, what happens? Young people do not have hope, young people tend to take the path of migration with all the consequences - which for Africa is the loss of brainpower, but also in Europe, migration leads to the rise of extremists, which is not a good thing.
"But between the two there is all that happens in the Mediterranean Sea where dozens of young Africans die, which is not humanity’s finest moment.
I asked him what he hoped his work would continue to bring:
"We hope to be able to continue to do our work of supporting accompanying women, but in the future we need to eliminate rape.
"For us, putting an end to this violence against women would be the pinnacle of our work, since we hope to see one day Congolese women being able to go out to farm, to fetch water or firewood and to return without fear of being raped.