The story of Panzi Hospital is one often touted as one of development and success within the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The hospital specializes in treatment of victims of sexual assault, of which there has been a pandemic due to the instrumental use of sexual violence within the conflict that has plagued the country for upwards of 15 years. Dr. Denis Mukwege, the Medical Director and Founder of the hospital has been recognized internationally for his work with honours such as the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought given by the European Parliament, and a recognition during the speeches for the Nobel Peace Prize. The world has recognized this man’s dedication to ally-ship with women and his hard work against the corrupt government in DRC.
The news breaking about the Hospital on 2015 is however, far from favourable. The DRC government has accused the hospital of tax fraud and has frozen their assets, staling all further medical assistance for their patients, and payment of their staffs December wages. So far the press is heavily one sided, with a press release from Dr. Mukwege and comments from the lawyer representing the hospital, but little to no comment from the government. That being said, the information coming forth paints a picture less of a corrupt, tax evading hospital, but rather one of a rash and irresponsible government.
Statements from the lawyer, Patient Bashombe, speak to how the acts by the government are illegal, especially given there is no record of any public hospital ever being required to pay taxes on staff salaries. Dr. Mukwege released a statement detailing the judiciary malfunction and irregularities in the tax procedures. All of these problems are arising shortly after a few controversial statements made by Dr. Mukwege. The Dr. has been known to speak out against the human rights abuses of women and girls in the country, as well as the poor governance and lack of social services in the DRC. One comment about following Burkina Faso’s example of ousting their long time leader may have been too close for comfort for the president of the Congo, Joseph Kabila. Kabila himself is what some would call a ‘veteran leader’, someone who has held power within a country for a long period of time.
This bureaucratic attack on the hospital comes following comments made by Dr. Mukwege, but it is also coincidentally tied to another major issue within the country. January 2nd marks the day upon which the ‘Forces Democratic pour Liberation de Rwanda’ (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, FDLR for short) is supposed to surrender or face a military stand off with the UN Peacekeeping forces as well as other regional militant groups. FDLR is thought to be made up of many who helped carry out the Rwandan genocide and have been responsible for many massacres within the DRC. Two countries have shown favour for the FDLR in recent negotiations, with Tanzania calling them a ‘Freedom Fighting’ group rather than ‘rebels’ and South Africa lobbying for postponement of counter FDLR action.
None of the above has good ramifications for the leadership of the country, in particular the president. One protester of the asset seizure from the hospital recounted how the hospital has fallen victim to these comments made by their director, how they show that the government a bystander to the victims of sexual assault, becoming one of many who simply stands by and watches as these atrocities continue to occur. Whether the approach of the stand off with FDLR has anything to do with the seizure of the hospitals assets is of little importance. But the implications of this coincidence could be quite grave. The highest instances of wartime sexual assault are at the peak of violence, with a new wave of violence threatening to surge, the hospitals services are needed more than ever.
The chiefs of the Lega tribe within the DRC have committed to forming traditional laws against sexual violence, rape, childhood marriage and the gendered nature of education in the country. They will set these acts to be taboo, offenders investigated and seriously punished with the most severe punishment. The local term for these severe crimes are ‘Muzombo‘. These kinds of crimes have also been recognized by the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict that took part in London, 150 nations represented by their ministers of foreign affairs have committed themselves to taking a stance against sexual violence.
That being said, re-victimization still occurs regularly. The halting of services at Panzi Hospital is one of many instances of lack of services available to victims of sexual assault. This is unfortunately a global theme when it comes to victimization. I like many, agree that the freeze of assets should be lifted on Panzi Hospital, preferably before another rash of violence spreads across the country. This is yet another case of women becoming forgotten victims of war. Which in my eyes, is the equivalent of many of the crimes deemed to be ‘Muzombo’.