Research associate discusses human rights and sexual violence from global health perspective

Wednesday, March 13, 2019 - 8:35pm

Research associate Dr. Alain Mukwege speaks at the Youth Leaders in Human Rights Lecture about international relations with Congo at Weiser Hall Wednesday afternoon.

Research associate Dr. Alain Mukwege speaks at the Youth Leaders in Human Rights Lecture about international relations with Congo at Weiser Hall Wednesday afternoon. Buy this photo
Keemya Esmael/Daily

Dr. Alain Mukwege, a research associate at University of Michigan School of Nursing, spoke about human rights advocacy and sexual violence against women from a global health perspective in front of about 40 students in Weiser Hall on Wednesday night. The event was hosted by The Program in International and Comparative Studies and the Donia Human Rights Center.

Mukwege is an activist and member of the advisory board of the Panzi Foundation USA, a non-profit organization that works to combat sexual violence against women by providing care to victims and advocating for solutions to human rights issues in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Robert Franzese, director of the Program in International and Comparative Studies, explained to The Daily that the department invited Mukwege to speak because they felt the lecture would be a great opportunity for students at the University to learn more about the cause.

“Dr. Mukwege has been here in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan at the School of Nursing for three years and of course his father was recognized with a Nobel Peace Prize last year and that brought him to our attention,” Franzese said. “We were thinking about the work he and his father have done with the Panzi hospital advocating against violence against women in war and otherwise.”

Mukwege began the lecture by briefly explaining the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo before delving into an overview of the Panzi Foundation’s work. He emphasized sexual violence has been used by different groups throughout the years to gain control over the nation. In order to illustrate the phenomenon, he pointed to the actions of invaders during the 1996 massacre in DR Congo.

“In order to sustain the activities they started pillaging or looting … and using extreme violence to do so,” Mukwege said. “The saddest part is that women and children were those that actually were most affected by this because what happened is that rape started being used as a systematic weapon of war. When it was done with extreme violence the goal was definitely to destroy the family … and in destroying the family and the community weaken the social structure.”

After providing context about the situation in DR Congo, Mukwege then described how the Panzi Foundation became the organization it is today. Although the foundation is most recognized for its efforts against sexual violence, Mukwege noted it only began its efforts against sexual violence to better serve its patients.

“It was really a response to the need, but it really didn’t start in that way,” Mukwege said. “It started in 1996 as a women’s health care center. The center was built in order to provide first care for women in labor.”

However, according to Mukwege, as time went on the hospital began receiving more and more cases related to sexual violence. As a result, the hospital adapted. It now offers many free services to victims of sexual violence like psychotherapy, group therapy, music therapy, education and legal assistance. Despite these advancements, Mukwege emphasized that there is still much more work to be done.

He believes anyone can help, and encouraged attendees of the event to get involved. Some of his suggestions included learning more about the situation, raising awareness, advocating on behalf of the organization, recruiting more people for the cause, talking to representatives, making conscious purchases and fundraising.

Mukwege provided the information with the intention of drawing more attention to the importance of advocating against corrupt practices like sexual violence, and thus enacting change.

“I really hope that sexual violence in conflicts should be … taken really seriously so that policies may be put in place in order to protect the populations in conflict … and bring restoration to the victims and communities,” Mukwege said.

Many attendees of the event, both students and University faculty alike, were moved by Mukwege’s message. LSA senior Emeka Nriagu said the presentation broadened his worldview.

“I feel like I’m impacting these events and these places,” Nriagu said. “It’s good to understand that I don’t live in a bubble. I’m impacting people besides the people immediately around me.”