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The Panzi Hospital in the DRC – a place of hope for women

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Dr. Grace Rehema Muhima

Dr. Grace Rehema Muhima from the Panzi Hospital presented the hospital's first Annual Report in Stockholm. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation | Katharina Andersen

One of the few functioning institutions in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo is the Panzi Hospital. Since 1999, about 30,000 women have been treated and cared for, and left the hospital empowered.

The Panzi Hospital in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo was founded by Dr. Denis Mukwege in 1999, mostly to assist pregnant women. But the hospitals first surgical patient was a woman who had been raped and then shot in her vagina. This woman was to be the first of about 30.000 survivors of sexual violence who have been helped at Panzi. Beginning with the war of 1996, sexual violence in the DR Congo increased enormously and rape became a weapon of war. A study from the World Bank amongst others shows that 12 percent of the Congolese women have been raped at least once.

The Survivors of Sexual Violence Project

Experiencing so much misery, the hospital started ‘The Survivors of Sexual Violence Project’ in 2004, with the objective to provide holistic care to survivors of sexual violence. Dr. Mukwege saw the necessity of not only repairing the physical damages of rape, the psychological traumata are oftentimes more difficult to heal. Care is required that goes far beyond clinical treatment. Thus, the hospital provides counseling and guidance, psychosocial, legal and socio-economic help.

As Jan Egeland, European Director of Human Rights Watch, puts it: “Panzi Hospital and its founder, Dr. Denis Mukwege, serve as a beacon of hope for thousands of victims of rape and sexual mutilation, ranging from children to grandmothers.”

No public health facilities

The DR Congo used to be known for its well-functioning health care system; nowadays public health facilities are more or less non-existent, which affects women especially hard.

The high prevalence of rape and the fact that contraception is either too expensive or only sold to women who can prove that their husband consented to birth control, contribute to that Congolese woman have on average six children. Having been pregnant many times or being very young when getting pregnant increases the risk for serious pregnancy or birth complications.

Women’s health is furthermore threatened by the lack of educated midwives, unattended births, the enormous distances and bad road conditions, oftentimes preventing women from reaching a hospital; and last but not least widespread poverty, which makes it impossible to pay a hospital bill. Maternal mortality in the DR Congo is thus among the highest in the world.

Treatment at Panzi hospital is free for survivors of sexual violence, malnourished people and HIV/aids patients, the most vulnerable groups. “Health and human rights go hand in hand and health should be an assurance for all mothers, not just for those that can afford the services, “ says Dr. Mukwege

The UN Millenium Development Goal (MDG) 5A has the target to reduce maternal mortality by 75 percent before 2015 – but with only two years left until deadline, only 50 percent are reached. Still, every day, almost 800 women die in pregnancy or childbirth, and for every woman who dies, 20 or more women experience serious complications, like obstetric fistula.

Fistula ‐ a devastating childbirth injury

Panzi hospital also provides care for women with fistula ‐ one of the most devastating childbirth injuries. A fistula develops when the head of the child during prolonged labor presses on the tissues of the vagina, cutting off the blood supply to the bladder or the rectum, which causes a hole in the tissue, through which urine or faeces pass uncontrollably.

Women with fistula are often abandoned by their husbands and family, their communities ostracize them and force them to live isolated. A successful operation at Panzi means that these women not only are cured, but get back a social life.

Dr. Grace Rehema Muhima presented the first Annual Report

Panzi Hospital’s first Annual Report was recently presented in Stockholm. Dr. Grace Rehema Muhima from the hospital traveled to Stockholm to tell about the situation on the ground after the assassination attempt on Dr. Mukwege in 2012. He had to flee the DR Congo, but decided later to return, as the hospital is the place where he is needed, Grace Muhima says. He was welcomed back like a hero, thousands of women were waiting to greet him – and promised to protect him. “These women have been mistreated and raped for a long time, their rights have been violated, but they have remained courageous,” he said upon his return. “Thus, I am comfortable staying at their side to help heal them, no matter the consequences.” Local officials and MONUSCO, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo have promised increased protection for Dr. Mukwege.

The situation is very unsafe, but the hospital staff continues the work, Dr. Muhima said. She stated furthermore that the hospital needs help of the international community for capacity building and for further development to be able to help even more women. More trained midwives for example would have a tremendous impact on reducing maternal mortality.

In a misogynic country like the DR Congo, Panzi hospital is a place where women are offered the experience: somebody is on my side, somebody cares and somebody helps. Here women are not outcasts, not stigmatized.

One of the cofounders of the hospital, the surgeon Dr. Nfundiko, says: “… often people come in and have lost their hope. It is always satisfying to watch them recover and regain their hope, determination to heal and will to live.”

Katharina Andersen 

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