Documentary About Rape Banned in ‘Rape Capital of the World’
A documentary highlighting the work of a world-renowned Congolese gynecologist has been banned in DRC.
Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist from war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, has operated on so many victims of sexual assault that he’s now considered the world’s leading expert on treating women who have been gang raped.
But a new documentary about his work was banned in Congo this week ahead of its premiere there, after the country’s media minister claimed the film had “a clear intent to harm and sully the image” of the national army.
Congo has been in a near-constant state of conflict since the early 1990s. Rebel militias and the national military alike are accused by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of systematically burning down civilian homes and mass raping women and children. Many of them have sought treatment in Mukwege’s hospital, which he opened in the town of Bukavu in 1999.
Mukwege, who in 2014 won the prestigious Sakharov Prize for his defense of human rights, has made it part of his mission not only to treat the victims of rape but to address the impunity of their rapists. The Man Who Mends Women, directed by Belgian filmmaker Thierry Michel, does not shy away from that aspect of Mukwege’s work in the film that was released elsewhere in March. The movie was slated to run this month in both the capital Kinshasa and in the town of Bukavu, where Mukwege’s hospital is based.
Although the documentary highlights the courage and resilience of Congo’s many rape victims, it also calls for political reforms that could help cure the country’s endemic rape culture. And it is the latter that likely sparked fears among political leaders that the film would motivate civilian pushback, prompting Wednesday’s announcement the movie would not be screened in Congo.
Michel told AFP the Congolese media minister initially approved the film’s release — but later reversed himself. The banning of the film, Michel said, was “unfathomable.”
“The banning of the scheduled screening of this film is a way of gagging [Mukwege] … and [the voice of] the victims of these wars and tragedies that the country has lived through for 20 years,” Michel said in a statement.
Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, Mukwege has treated an estimated 40,000 women since he opened his clinic in 1999. Considered by many Congolese to be a national hero, his activism hasn’t been isolated to the operating room. In recent years, he addressed the United Nations and other international forums to ask for help in ending the violence that targets women in Congo.
Eastern Congo, where Mukwege runs his clinic, is where Congolese violence is at its worst. The Kinshasa-based government lacks comprehensive oversight, and rebel groups continue to emerge despite the presence of close to 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers. In 2012, Mukwege was temporarily forced into exile after armed men stormed his home to protest his work.
In 2010, then-U.N. Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallström called the Congo the “rape capital of the world,” and a 2011 U.N. report estimated 48 women are raped every hour in Congo.
In 2012, Congolese soldiers went on a rampage in the town of Minova, raping more than 1,000 women and children in just 10 days. Only 39 soldiers were ever brought to trial, and only two were found guilty, sparking outrage from the many victims who testified in the landmark trial.
The Congolese government’s decision Wednesday to cancel all screenings of the film signals yet again a willingness to overlook atrocities committed by the country’s military.
In one particularly poignant scene, Michel’s film features footage of Mukwege’s return to Bukavu after his brief exile in Europe. Surrounded by cheering women, he leans over the podium and looks into the crowd.
“Together we say no to war, no to rebellion,” he shouts. “And no to those who wish to become ministers and generals by killing their fellow countrymen.”
Photo credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images