Dr. Alumeti and Panzi Hospital: Symbols of Health and Hope for Survivors of Sexual Violence in Congo
It’s infrequent that stories of hope, compassion, and progress emerge from the war-torn Kivu provinces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But in early June, the staff of PHR was honored to hear from Dr. Désiré Munyali Alumeti, a pediatric surgeon and forensic doctor at the renowned Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, South Kivu province. Dr. Alumeti enthusiastically recounted his experience working with survivors of sexual violence at Panzi, his words holding promise for the thousands of women who survive rape at the hands of armed combatants in the dense forests and remote villages of eastern DRC.
Rape has been used as a war tactic in this region of Congo, systematically perpetrated against civilian women to destabilize entire communities, break apart families, and humiliate suspected supporters of opposition militias. Various rebel factions, government soldiers, and – alarmingly – an increasing number of civilians are all known to carry out these atrocities, unimpeded by a justice system that rarely functions and incentivized by a culture of near-total impunity. Though armed violence in eastern Congo is geographically sporadic, with some areas enjoying prolonged periods without conflict, Dr. Alumeti symbolically describes the institutionalization of rape in Congo as “une guerre dans la paix” – a war within the peace. For thousands of sexual violence survivors whose health, livelihoods, and capacity to thrive have been tremendously affected by these human rights abuses, Panzi Hospital offers a beacon of hope.
During his visit to PHR’s office, Dr. Alumeti discussed the services his hospital provides, free of charge, to rape survivors from all over the DRC. Women even travel across the border from Rwanda to access the health care, psychological support, respite, and security offered by Panzi Hospital. Between the hospital’s establishment in 1999 and June 2010, health providers at Panzi treated over 25,000 women for gynecological conditions, many of whom were rape survivors with severe physical and psychological trauma.
In 2004, Panzi Hospital broadened its response to the systemic sexual violence occurring in the region, establishing a specific program for survivors seeking help at the facility. Providing care and treatment to women suffering the many physical and psychosocial consequences of rape, medical professionals repair fistulae, treat HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, and conduct psychosocial counseling. In addition to health services, Panzi Hospital provides socio-economic reintegration assistance and legal aid to survivors in several areas of South Kivu, helping women support their families and encouraging them to seek justice and reparations for the abuses they have endured.
Dr. Alumeti also noted the immense challenges Congolese women face in accessing the legal system, gaining the judicial support to prosecute perpetrators, and garnering the political will to ensure their families and communities are protected from repeated attacks. While the DRC has several relatively new laws regarding sexual violence, implementation and enforcement of this legislation is often impeded by lack of governmental capacity, poor accountability mechanisms, and protracted insecurity and instability throughout the country.
Another major obstacle to connecting survivors of sexual violence to the justice system in the DRC is the nation’s low number of forensically-trained medical professionals. Dr. Alumeti is apparently one of the only forensic doctors in the DRC professionally trained in the collection and documentation of forensic evidence of rape and sexual assault, making him a key resource for women seeking assistance at Panzi Hospital. However, successfully linking forensic evidence gathered in the health system to police, lawyers, judges, and advocates is an enduring hardship in DRC, even with the ample resources and broad connections of Panzi Hospital.
Given the incredible work of Dr. Alumeti and other professionals at Panzi Hospital providing care and support to rape survivors, PHR is looking forward to a partnership with Panzi Hospital and many others in the DRC to help build capacity for ending impunity for sexual violence. This project will involve training health, legal, and law enforcement professionals in best practices of forensic evidence documentation and prosecution of perpetrators of sexual violence, and aims to strengthen the linkages between the medical, legal, and law enforcement sectors to improve survivors’ access to justice. Stay tuned for updates!