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Protecting Women and Promoting Human Rights

In one of the most unsettled areas of the globe, Dr. Denis Mukwege, Penn Nursing Renfield Foundation Award recipient, has tirelessly treated tens of thousands of women and risked his life in a campaign to end the use of mass rape as a weapon of war.

Dr. Mukwege, gynecological surgeon, wages a war of his own to protect women and promote human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the nation named in 2014 by the U.N. as the worst place to be a woman. 

“Women give life and care for our children. Women are central to the health, peace and security of our families, communities, countries and the whole world. Throughout my career I have witnessed the power of women. But women of the Congo and around the world face sexual violence on a daily basis. We must fight this and stop it. I am glad to be in this fight with you,” said Dr. Mukwege, who was at the School of Nursing in March 2016 to accept the second biennial Penn Nursing Renfield Foundation Award for Global Women’s Health. 

The Renfield Award supports leaders, advocates and activists who work to address pressing challenges facing women and women’s health around the world today,” explains Antonia Villarruel, PhD, FAAN, Dean, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. “This award effectively helps us to raise awareness of global women’s health and support those, like Dr. Mukwege, who work tirelessly to address significant unmet needs.” 

“Dr. Mukwege personifies the qualities of compassion and courage, and the virtue of a life dedicated to the physical and emotional restoration of badly wounded people,” says Joseph Renfield, board member of the Beatrice Renfield Foundation. “We are honored by his acceptance of the Penn Nursing Renfield Foundation Award.” 

Sharing a Deep Moral Purpose 

While Dr. Mukwege was visiting the Penn campus this spring, he met with a wide range of student groups, all eager to hear from a man who has the courage of his convictions to enact social change. He explained how he founded the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, DRC. There, he and his staff have performed reconstructive gynecological surgery on more than 40,000 females injured as a consequence of war, including those subjected to rape.

“I was struck by how humbly Dr. Mukwege talked about his efforts to change the culture in the DRC,” says Nicole Nugent, GNu’17, who met him during a student luncheon at the Penn Women’s Center. “We know that to change issues that have as great an impact on society as those in the DRC, one must work one-to-one with people. Dr. Mukwege showed that he was eager to meet with students, build relationships and share common experiences.” 

Vishnu Rachakonda, ENG’18, a member of the campus group, Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault, also met Dr. Mukwege. “This was one of the most powerful speaking events I have attended,” he says. And while Dr. Mukwege spoke in French, which was translated by an interpreter, the revelatory message broke through linguistic barriers.

“I came away from that meeting with a deeper sense of understanding of how moral purpose has to guide our personal, political and professional actions, just as it does for Dr. Mukwege,” says Rachakonda. “I am currently writing a paper which will articulate how the use of rape as a weapon of war can be more effectively prosecuted by the international community. I hope to share my policy recommendations with Dr. Mukwege and hear his thoughts.”

Before Dr. Mukwege arrived on campus, Penn Nursing hosted several viewings of a documentary “The Man Who Mends Women: The Wrath of Hippocrates” to help students, faculty and other audiences understand the violence in the DRC and Dr. Mukwege’s remarkable impact.

In bringing his message to campus, Dr. Mukwege also explained how he became convicted of being an active humanitarian early in his career as a surgeon. He shared how he came to understand how he could leverage his medical talent, research ability and problem-solving acumen to not just influence society, but to mend it.

A Tireless Humanitarian

Along with the hospital, Dr. Mukwege has also established a nurses’ training program, the Institute de Techniques Medicales de Panzi, to provide education and clinical training to about 50 nurses each year, so that the standard of clinical care can be maintained. 

Dr. Mukwege also founded the Panzi Foundation, a sister organization to Panzi Hospital, in 2008. The foundation improves access to quality maternal and reproductive care, promotes women’s rights and gender equality, prevents violence against women and children and provides rehabilitative care including job skills training and math and literacy classes. He also co-founded the International Center for Advanced Research and Training in Bukavu, the mission of which focuses on infrastructure support to retain the best and the brightest of Congolese scholars. 

What keeps him in the fight? “When I see all that the women of my country have done to gain the few rights they have, I want to fight harder to give them the tools they need to enjoy all the rights they deserve,” he says. “But we are not there yet. There is a big gap and we must fill that gap with moral actions to assure women’s rights are respected.” 

Dr. Mukwege’s humanitarian actions make him no stranger to the limelight. He has been nominated twice for a Nobel Peace Prize, was recently named by Fortune magazine as one of the World’s greatest leaders and was one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People for 2016. Yet he claims any fame that comes from his renown solely as an opportunity to educate the world about how violence against women in Congo and elsewhere devastates culture, economy and prosperity. 

“Justice cannot happen until women are medically and psychologically sound and empowered by the education and legal systems,” he says. “I must rest in the belief that good will conquer evil. I have hope that Congo will overcome these problems, and know in my heart we will do so on the strength of our women.”