"Women's bodies have become a true battlefield and rape is being used as a weapon of war," said Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege as he accepted the 2014 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in Strasbourg on Wednesday 26 November. Dr Mukwege was honoured by the European Parliament for dedicating his life to helping thousands of victims of gang rape and brutal sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
EP President Martin Schulz expressed his admiration and deepest respect for Dr Mukwege's work as a medical doctor and his campaign for women’s dignity and justice and peace in his country. "The impunity for rape in armed conflicts is something that must be brought to an end," said Schulz. "It needs to be punished just like every other war crime."
Schulz also welcomed representatives from the 2014 Sakharov Prize finalists present in the public: Ielyzaveta Shchepetylnykova, fromthe Euromaidan movement in Ukraine, and Dinara Yunus, the daughter of Leyla Yunus, founder of the Institute for Peace and Democracy in Azerbaijan who is still incarcerated.
"Quest for peace, justice and democracy"
In his acceptance speech, Dr Mukwege told MEPs that by awarding him the Sakharov Prize they had drawn "the world´s attention to the need to protect women during armed conflicts, you have refused to be indifferent to one of the biggest humanitarian catastrophes of modern times."
However, he warned: "This prize won´t have any significance to the female victims of sexual violence if you won't join us in our quest for peace, justice and democracy." Dr Mukwege added: "Together - politicians, civil society, citizens, men and women - we have to draw a red line against the use of rape as a weapon of war."
Democratic Republic of Congo: "neither at peace, nor at war"
"We have spent too much time and energy fixing the consequences of violence. It is time to take care of the causes," said Dr Mukwege, calling on the EU and its member states to use all instruments available to support resolving the conflicts in the region.
"Justice should also be at the centre of the peace process and the fight against impunity should be reinforced," he said, adding he empathised with every victim. "In every raped woman, I see my wife. In every raped mother, I see my mother and in every raped child, my own children."
Mukwege is an internationally-recognised expert in the treatment of pathological and psycho-social damage caused by sexual violence. The 59-year-old gynaecologist founded the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu in 1998, when a war took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where today he still treats victims of sexual violence who have suffered serious injuries.
The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is awarded each year by the European Parliament. It was set up in 1988 to honour individuals and organisations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms. Last year the prize was awarded to Malala Yousafzaï, the Pakistani campaigner for girls' education. Laureates receive €50,000.