Mukwege and his fight against war time sexual violence

On November 26, 2014 Denis Mukwege will receive the Sakharov prize for his tireless work of helping victims of war time sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Sakharov prize is awarded yearly by the European Parliament. The prize is named after the Soviet human rights activist Andrei Sakharov and is intended to honour exceptional individuals who combat intolerance, fanaticism and oppression.

Sexual violence is one of the contemporary curses of war time violence. The consequences of sexual violence are devastating for the victims – see the impressive book by Anne-Marie de Brouwer & Sandra Ka Hon Chu with the telling title The men who killed me and the equally impressive documentary on mediastorm: // Victims of sexual violence often suffer terrible abuse, humiliation and trauma. Many post WW-II conflicts such as the Rwandan genocide, the war in former Yugoslavia, the conflicts in Sierra Leone, DR Congo and Sudan have been characterized by the structural and systematic use of sexual violence. IS (formerly known as ISIS) too is using sexual violence as a weapon in war. Sexual violence has been so persistent throughout history that many scholars and policymakers have come to believe that it is an inevitable consequence of war. This however is not the case.

A group of scholars from Yale University under the leadership of Elisabeth Wood have concluded that the use of sexual violence in armed conflicts varies. While Bosnian Serbs, the Rwandan killer groups and the Revolutionary Armed Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone engaged in extremely high levels of sexual violence, the use of sexual violence in some other conflicts is rare. The LTTE in Sri Lanka for instance engaged in many forms of violence but displayed low levels of sexual violence. Wood consequently notes that sexual violence cannot be considered an inevitable consequence of war. Dara Cohen, a former student of Wood’s, conducted a cross-national survey on conflicts and sexual violence in the period 1980-2009. She gathered data on all 86 civil wars in this period and in a recently published article she concluded that in 18 conflicts there was widespread rape – in 35 conflicts there were numerous reports of rape, in 18 conflicts there were isolated reports of rape and in 15 conflicts there was no report of rape. These figures clearly show that not all characterized by rape and sexual violence.

This is an important finding: if sexual violence is not inevitable then we should be able to find means to fight it. In order to be able to do so, it is important to figure out why sexual violence varies. Wood concludes that in some conflicts the leaders of armed groups have a tight grip on their recruits and prohibit sexual violence for a number of practical and strategic reasons, while in other situations high ranking leaders or mid-level commanders condone or even order sexual violence. Sexual violence can however also be initiated by the lower ranking soldiers who are out of reach and control of the top leaders. More research needs to be done in order to figure out when and under what circumstances sexual violence occurs in order to find effective means to fight it. Progress has however been made in the struggle against sexual violence. Since several years it has been an important topic in academia, extensively discussed by policymakers such as the UN and the international criminal courts and tribunals have prosecuted and convicted a number of perpetrators for sexual violence in the last couple of years.

As in many other conflicts, sexual violence has been a very persistent problem in the DRC. Denis Mukwege is one of the people who is fighting this. Mukwege is a medical doctor who has established a hospital specialized in the treatment of victims of sexual violence. He however not only helps and treats victims of sexual violence in the DRC in a medical sense but also tries to help them reintegrate into society. This unfortunately is often a problem. Many women who have been sexually abused, humiliated and raped are often ostracized by the community, they continuously suffer from the physical and emotional trauma but also from the social stigma as they are often considered unfit for marriage. Mukwege has also become a human rights activist travelling around the world to draw attention to the persistent problem of war time sexual violence. Two years ago Mukwege survived an assassination attempt but this did not stop him from continuing his important work. By awarding the Sacharov prize to Denis Mukwege, the European Parliament not only praises a man for his work but also draws attention to the terrible consequences of war time sexual violence and the dire need to fight this curse and look after the victims.


  • Brouwer, A.M. de & S. Ka Hon Chu (eds.) (2009). The men who killed me, D.M. Publishers.
  • Brouwer, A.M., C. Ku, R. Römkens & L. van den Herik (eds.). Sexual violence as an international crime: interdisciplinary approaches, Antwerp: Intersentia.
  • Cohen, D.K. (2013). Explaining rape during civil war: cross-national evidence (1980-2009), American Political Science Review 107 (3), p. 461-477..
  • Wood, E.J. (2006). Variation in sexual violence during war, Politics and Society 34 (3), 307-342.
  • Wood, E.J. (2009). Armed groups and sexual violence: when is sexual violence rare? Politics and Society 37(1), 131-161.
  • See also the sexual violence dataset: //