Bogaletch Gebre: The woman fighting female genital mutilation in Ethiopia

Bogaletch Gebre ©KMG

Bogaletch Gebre ©KMG

“Change takes commitment, not a miracle.”

Hidden away in the Africa section of the BBC news website yesterday there was a wonderful article about a woman who is trying to make the world a better place.

Her name is Bogaletch Gebre and this week she was awarded the King Baudouin African Development Prize in recognition for her work in women’s rights, specifically her campaigning to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) in Ethiopia.

Also known as female circumcision, female genital mutilation is practised mainly in communities in Africa and the Middle East. It is the deliberate, non-medical removal or cutting of female genitalia and is often considered a necessary part of raising a girl “properly”, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. In many communities it is also believed to reduce a woman’s libido and therefore believed to help her resist “illicit” sexual acts.

It is usually carried out by local traditional practitioners without anaesthesia, using instruments such as knives, scissors and razors and causes long-term severe health problems, such as infertility, childbirth complications, cysts, recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections – not to mention the short-term effects such as severe pain, shock and haemorrhaging.

140 million girls worldwide have been affected by FGM

140 million girls worldwide have been affected by FGM

Bogaletch Gebre is herself a victim of female genital mutilation. She doesn’t know when she was born but believes it was sometime in the 1950s in Kembatta, Ethiopia, a region where FGM was endemic. At the age of 12 she was subjected to brutal FGM and also lost one of her sisters to the practice.

Coming from an area where girls were largely uneducated, Gebre decided to run away to a missionary school and became the first girl from her village to receive a primary education. She won a scholarship to attend high school in Addis Ababa then moved to Jerusalem to study Microbiology and this led on to a scholarship at the University of Massachusetts.

Whilst studying for her PhD in Epidemiology in Los Angeles, she set up a charity called Development Through Education and started running marathons to raise money. In total, she raised $26,000 which was spent on books that were sent to universities and schools in Ethiopia.

Not long after this, Gebre returned home with $5,000 in her pocket and a dream. Along with her sister, Fikirte, she founded the Kembatti Mentti Gezzimma (KMG) group with the aim of increasing the trust of the elders in communities where FGM is endemic. They hoped that by developing a dialogue with them and questioning their practices, they might be able to make an impact and lower the rate of FGM.

Through her hard work with the elders, she came to realise that many of them did not know where FGM originated and that it was not prescribed in the Bible or the Koran.

Bogaletch Gebre ©KMG

Bogaletch Gebre ©KMG

“For social change, you must go to the people, to really listen to them and learn from them. It is all about commitment. As a young girl when I spoke to elders, I had to look at their feet, not their faces. As an adult, I stood in front of a congregation of 800 men, women and children. I said female genital mutilation is not prescribed in the Bible or the Koran. So where did the practice come from?”

Gebre’s dedication has paid of because in just ten years of working with the communities, she has managed to lower the incidence of female genital mutilation from 100% to less than 3% in newborn girls – an extraordinary achievement.

Gebre hopes the King Baudouin prize will bring more attention to the issue of women’s rights in Africa. “Today only 1% of all aid that goes to African countries goes to women, just 1%. Yet we are half the population in every country if not more,” she said.

“We started in four districts and now we are in 700. We have developed tools and approaches to how can we eliminate not only FGM but gender inequality. We want a woman to be recognised as a person with human value, with dignity, who can hope and think,” she said.

A short documentary about Bogaletch

Female Genital Mutilation: The facts

Key facts about female genital mutilation from the World Health Organisation (WHO):

  • Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
  • The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.
  • Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth increased risk of newborn deaths.
  • About 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM.
  • FGM is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15.
  • In Africa an estimated 101 million girls 10 years old and above have undergone FGM.
  • FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

How you can help:

Kembatti Mentti Gezzimma – KMG has 106 employees and 6,000 volunteers.  The organisation is present in 700 villages and about 2.5 million people are touched by its action. Find out more at

Orchid Project – A London based charity working to eradicate FGM around the world. To find out more about the charity please click here. To donate please visit:

Daughters of Eve is a non-profit organisation working to protect girls and young women who are at risk from female genital mutilation. Find out more here:

FORWARD – A charity dedicated to advancing and safeguarding the sexual and reproductive health and rights of African girls and women. Find out more here: To donate, please click here.


Edna Adan: The woman who cashed in her pension, sold her car and even her dishwasher to build a hospital in Somaliland

Edna Adan Ismael

Edna Adan ©

I wonder how many of us could give up our home comforts and sell all that we own to help those in need? Well that’s exactly what Edna Adan did when she retired at the age of 60. She sold all her possessions to be able to build a maternity hospital in Hargeisa, Somaliland.


The Horn of Africa: Somalia and Somaliland

Somaliland, an autonomous region located in northern Somalia, has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Women have a 1 in 10 chance of dying of pregnancy related complications, whereas in developed countries that figure is closer to 1 in 4,000.

Edna’s dream for years had been to build a hospital in her native country. She was born in Hargeisa in 1937 to a very well-known Somali doctor and as a young woman she gained a scholarship and moved to England where she trained in nursing, midwifery and hospital management for seven years.

When Edna returned home to Somaliland, she became the first qualified nurse-midwife in the country. She later became the First Lady of Somalia when she married Prime Minister, Muhammad Ibrahim Egal.

After they divorced, Edna was recruited to join the World Health Organisation (WHO), where she held various key positions advocating for the abolition of harmful traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation.

She retired in 1997, but instead of taking it easy, she cashed in her pension from the WHO and sold her jewellery and her Mercedes to be able to build the Edna Adan University Hospital. “I do miss my car – yes,” Edna says.  “But what it has become gives me far more satisfaction. The forceps,  the instruments, the construction material that it has helped to provide is far more exciting. …Besides, what would I do with a Mercedes in a country that has no paved roads?”

Back in the late 1980s Edna had started to build a hospital in the Somali capital Mogadishu, but when the civil war broke out she was forced to flee the country. Her dream was finally realised, though, in 2002 when the Edna Adan University Hospital was completed in her hometown of Hargeisa. Since the opening, the hospital has seen over 14,000 patients and delivered over 12,000 babies and Edna has now focused her efforts on a new goal: training and dispatching 1,000 qualified midwives throughout Somaliland.

TED Talks: Edna Adan

“Edna is saving women’s lives in childbirth in one of the most difficult, desolate countries in the world – Somaliland,” says New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, who wrote about Edna in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide“She is training midwives across the country, she has built a hospital that serves women, men, and children, she is fighting female genital mutilation,  and she is doing all of this just by force of will….It’s an incredible achievement.”

Edna and Nick Kristof ©

Edna and Nick Kristof outside the hospital ©

What Edna has done to help those in need is amazing. She had a dream that she was truly passionate about and never gave up on it. For that she is a remarkable lady and a true role model.

‘Don’t ever underestimate the capacity of a human being who is determined to do something.’ Edna says, ‘If I at 60 could build a hospital, anyone can do it’.

Actress Diane Lane visits the hospital

For more information please see the Edna Adan University Hospital website –

You can donate to the hospital here –

Alternatively you can donate here to help purchase a hematology analyser to replace the one that was destroyed in a power surge. The analyser is used to check for anemia and other potential complications in pregnant mothers.

You can follow Edna on Twitter here –

Thank you for reading

Celebrating Heroes: Somaly Mam


“I continue to give my life to help those in pain and respectfully call upon all those who have love to give, to give wholeheartedly for those less fortunate.” – Somaly Mam

Today is Somaly Mam’s official birthday – she doesn’t know her real birthday or the year she was born (it is thought she was born in 1970/71) or even who her parents were.

So who is Somaly Mam you might ask? She is head of the Somaly Mam Foundation, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to the eradication of sexual slavery and the empowerment of its survivors.

During the mid-1970s when Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge party were terrorising Cambodia, wiping out a quarter of the population, Somaly Mam was separated from her family. She was taken in by a man who promised to help find her father but instead he kept her as his slave until he sold her, at the age of 12, to a brothel in the capital, Phnom Penh. It was here that she endured horrific torture and rape on a daily basis.

She watched in horror as her best friend was murdered by a pimp and knew she had to escape or face the same fate herself. With the help of a French aid worker she managed to flee to Paris but instead of living out her days in peace, she returned to Cambodia where she worked as a nurse with Medicines Sans Frontiers, handing out condoms to women in the brothels. In 1996 she set up Afesip (acting for women in distressing situations) to rescue, house and rehabilitate survivors of sexual slavery in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The organisation works with the police to raid brothels and bring the women to safety – some of the survivors are as young as six.

Somaly has already helped over 4,000 women escape sexual slavery and in 2007 set up the Somaly Mam Foundation to raise awareness, campaign for change, fund projects and support anti-trafficking groups. Because of her work she has been threatened by pimps and brothel owners and in 2006 her 14-year-old daughter was kidnapped and raped by three men in retaliation for her work.


Somaly Mam could easily have stayed away from Cambodia and her past, but instead she decided to fight back and confront a problem which affects thousands of women and girls in Cambodia and millions more in other countries. It is estimated that around two million girls are held as sex slaves around the world.


“My lowest point was when I was trapped as a sex slave and didn’t know how to find my way out. My adoptive parents always gave me good advice: “Use the difficulties to make you stronger, difficulty is your life’s experience.” Their words gave me hope to move on. I now understand life is love, life is about forgiveness,” Somaly said,  “In life you have to learn that you are enough, if you learn how to be enough and accept it then you can unlock all your potential.”

To find out more about Somaly Mam and her Foundation please visit the below links:

You can also follow Somaly on Twitter here –

And on Facebook here –

Celebrating heroes: A real-life Cool Hand Luke

Hero: Mbaye Diagne

Hero: Mbaye Diagne

Through magazines, newspapers and television we’re bombarded with an abundance of ‘celebrities’ on a daily basis, people who become ‘role models’ because they’re all we ever see and hear about. People ‘papped’ for falling out of clubs, shopping, getting into trouble… basically famous for being famous. But the real celebrities, those who deserve to be famous and lauded for all that they do are the heroes who are trying to make other people’s lives better, the people who are rarely considered news worthy as what they do isn’t glamorous enough or worth gossiping about.

Take Dr Denis Mukwege, who I wrote about back in August. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize the same year Barack Obama won and is a living hero. He puts his neck on the line every single day to save the women of the DR Congo, but he barely makes the news headlines. You might see him somewhere in the Africa section of the BBC News website now and then, like when there was an attempt made on his life recently, but it’s not enough.

There are many more people like Dr Mukwege who deserve recognition for what they do and have done. One of those people is a man described by those who knew him as “The bravest of the brave,” “The greatest man I have ever known,” “A real-life Cool Hand Luke…”

These are just a few of the words used to describe Senegalese UN soldier Mbaye Diagne.

The story starts a long time before Mbaye Diagne landed in Rwanda as an unarmed UN military observer as part of the UN Peacekeeping forces during the lead up to the country’s genocide in 1994.

For almost a hundred years tensions were high between the two main ethnic groups in Rwanda – the ethnic Hutu majority and the ethnic Tutsi minority. They were thrown into years of rivalry by Belgian colonists who favoured the Tutsi’s, considering them superior to the Hutu’s, and enabling them to enjoy a far greater life.

The Tutsi’s received better jobs and education and this built a bitter resentment amongst the Hutu population, but in the late 1950s they overthrew the Tutsi government, treating the minority Tutsi’s poorly for many years to come. In the early 1990s a full-scale civil war erupted and lasted for three years until a cease-fire was brokered after the international community put increasing pressure on the Hutu-led government of Juvenal Habyarimana. But on 6th April 1994, President Habyarimana was assassinated when his plane was shot down over the capital Kigali.

Président Juvénal Habyarimana.© Nouvel Observateur

Président Juvénal Habyarimana.
© Nouvel Observateur

It is still not known to this day who shot the plane down. Hutu’s blamed the Tutsi’s for murdering President Habyarimana but some believe it could have been the Hutu’s themselves who carried it out in order to gain support for their growing plan to murder all of Rwanda’s Tutsi population.

The plane carrying Rwanda President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down on April 6, 1994, their assassination sparked the Rwandan Genocide ©Jean Marc Boujou, AP

The plane carrying Rwanda President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down on April 6, 1994, their assassination sparked the Rwandan Genocide ©Jean Marc Boujou, AP

After the death of the President, the Interahamwe, a group of Hutu extremists, saw their opportunity to wipe out what they called the ‘cockroaches’ and gained the support of the Hutus in government, the local military and the mass media throughout Rwanda. They used the national radio stations to broadcast violent propaganda against the Tutsi’s and set up checkpoints throughout the country to stop those who tried to escape. An American military adviser at the time suggested that the US could use jamming equipment to take the radio stations off the air to stop the spread of violent propaganda and hatred but a lawyer from the Pentagon made the argument that that would be contrary to the US constitutional protection of freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

With no one to stop them the Interahamwe put their plan into action and began the mass extermination of Tutsi’s and moderate Hutu’s. Over the next 100 days they murdered 800,000 men, women and children – that’s 8,000 people per day – butchering the majority of them to death with machetes.

Scenes like this were seen far and wide across the country

Scenes like this were seen far and wide across the country

What were the UN and the rest of the world doing about it you ask? Good question. Seven weeks into the genocide Bill Clinton gave a speech outlining the United States’ position on the state of Rwanda, advising that they would only intervene in a humanitarian crisis and only if it was in America’s national interest “…whether we get involved in any of the worlds ethnic conflicts in the end must depend on the cumulative weight of the American interest at stake…” By this point almost half a million people had already been murdered by the Hutu’s and soon the UN started to pull their peacekeeping troops out of the country.

When Belgian UN peacekeepers abandoned the Don Bosco Technical School, where they had been protecting 2,000 refugees, Hutu militants who had been waiting outside, drinking beer and chanting “Hutu Power”,  saw their chance and entered the compound, massacring every single person inside, including hundreds of children.

Tutsi's massacred by the Interahamwe

Tutsi’s massacred by the Interahamwe

After the Holocaust the world said ‘Never Again’ and adopted a UN convention requiring that future genocides be stopped. When genocide happened in Rwanda, the United States along with other governments simply avoided using the word but yet again they were full of apologies after the event.

During the genocide there were several heroes who, with no thought for their own safety, helped save the lives of thousands of Tutsi’s. The most famous story is of course that of Paul Rusesabagina, subject of the film, Hotel Rwanda.

Rusesabagina, a Hutu, was married to Tatiana, a Tusti when the genocide began. He worked as the Manager of the Hotel des Milles Collines and brought his family there for safety. It became a haven for refugees during the genocide and Rusesabagina managed to keep the Hutu militia at bay with bribes. By the end of the genocide his acts had saved the lives of 1,268 men, women and children.  Another lesser known story of heroism during the genocide comes in the form of Mbaye Diagne.

Mbaye Diagne

Mbaye Diagne

Mbaye, a devout Muslim, from Dakar in Senegal was the first person out of his family to go to university. He joined the army after graduating from the University of Dakar and worked his way up, eventually being sent out to Rwanda as an unarmed UN military observer.

On the morning of the 7th April, the day after President Habyarimana was assassinated, Rwanda’s first and only female Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a moderate Hutu, was assassinated by the Hutu presidential guard at her home along with her husband and ten Belgian peacekeepers.

Captain Mbaye Diagne heard about Agathe and the peacekeepers from civilians arriving at the Hotel des Milles Collines and immediately made his way to her house, unarmed. He found out that Agathe and her husband surrendered to the Presidential Guard in order to save her children who were hiding inside the compound. Fortunately the troops hadn’t searched the house and when Cpt Diagne got there he found the four children hiding behind clothes and furniture in a corner. He was promised by the UN that extra troops and an armoured personnel carrier would be along shortly to take them to safety but they never showed up. Mbaye knew that the children were a target and would be killed unless they were taken out of the country so he hid them in his car and smuggled them across town to the airport.

Seeing the rapid deterioration of the situation in the country, Mbaye knew he couldn’t just stand by and watch as thousands of people were murdered. He drove out to Nyamirambo, a Kigali neighbourhood that was particularly dangerous, where he found a group of 25 Tusti’s in a house. He took them in groups of 5 to the UN headquarters, each time passing through 23 Hutu checkpoints, somehow managing to convince the militia to let them live using his charm, cigarettes and money.

Mbaye’s colleagues were soon noticing more and more refugees appearing at the Amahoro Hotel in Kigali before being shipped out to safety elsewhere. They knew it was Mbaye who was bringing them there and that it was against his orders of being a UN ‘observer’ but even his boss General Dallaire refused to stop him.

On one occasion his charm managed to save the life of BBC journalist Mark Doyle:

“… I remember once I was very grateful I was in Mbaye’s car. We were going to see an orphanage. We got stopped by the government militia, and the militia man leaned through the window with one of these Chinese stick grenades which look a bit like sink plungers, but they’re not sink plungers — they explode and kill you if they go off. And he started waving it under my nose, because he thought I was Belgian — because at the time the Belgians were perceived by the government to be pro-rebel — and so this militia man thought because I’m white and driving around — and most of the white people who lived in Kigali at the time, the majority were Belgian — he thought I was Belgian. So he said to Mbaye, “Who’s this guy? Is he Belgian?” and if Mbaye had said the wrong thing at that point, then I’ve no doubt that we’d have all been killed.

And what he did was he just joked. He said, “No, no — I’m the Belgian. I’m the Belgian here, look — black Belgian.” And he broke the tension of the moment, and once the tension of the moment had been broken, he said, “No, no — in fact, look, this guy is the BBC. Here’s his badge. He’s a BBC journalist, he’s British, and he’s got nothing to do with Belgian.” And this kind of put the military man off guard a bit and he no longer wanted to kill us. And I just wonder if a Canadian soldier or a French soldier would have been able to do that, to joke with this guy and potentially save my life and the life of all the other people around who would have been killed by this stick grenade. …”

On 31st May, Cpt Mbaye was driving back to the UN headquarters alone and in preparation for moving more people when a mortar landed next to his car at one of the checkpoints. He was killed instantly.

It’s estimated that he saved as many as 1000 people during the genocide – ferrying between 3 – 5 at a time through 23 checkpoints on a daily basis meaning that during the genocide he potentially passed through 4,600 checkpoints, risking his life each time.

Mbaye’s friend Gregory Alex commented on the aftermath of his death:

“People are talking about going and getting his dress uniform. They’re calling around for a body bag. But there’s no body bag. Not a body bag in the whole U.N. The ICRC (Red Cross) doesn’t have any body bags that they can spare. And at this time we’re starting to put together and we’re saying, you know, here’s a guy who gave his ultimate, did everything, and we don’t even have a body bag to show him some respect.

We had some UNICEF plastic sheeting, and we had some tape and Mbaye’s body comes. And he’s a big man, tall, big feet. And he’s on a stretcher now. Nobody knows exactly what to do, but we’re gonna make a body bag. … And you wanna do it right. You want to … zip it, [but] you got this UN light-blue body bag, and we’re going to make and fold the edges over. And we’re folding them up, and the creases aren’t right, because his feet are so damn big. … And you don’t want that for him. You want it to be like, you know, just laid out perfectly. So that when people look at him, they know that he was something great.”

UN soldiers surrounding the body of Mbaye Diagne

UN soldiers surrounding the body of Mbaye Diagne

The UN Force HQ held a minute of silence in his honor and a small parade at the airport on 1 June. Mark Doyle said:

“Can you imagine the blanket media coverage that a dead British or American peacekeeper of Mbaye’s bravery and stature would have received?….. He got almost none.”

Gregory Alex added:

“He was a hero. He was the guy that, in every movie that’s ever made you have the guy that is the tragic hero. … But this one’s real. This man was a hero to people he didn’t know and people he did know, to people who didn’t have a clue and didn’t understand why he was doing it. …”

Mbaye Diagne was single-handedly responsible for saving the lives of up to 1,000 people during the genocide, a feat that no other nation even attempted. His bravery knew no limits and for that reason he is a true hero.

Making the world a better place: The man who rebuilds the lives of women and children in the rape capital of the world

Dr Denis Mukwege at the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, eastern DR Congo © Endre Vestvik

When Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his ‘extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples’, he had been inaugurated less than two weeks before the 1 February nomination deadline. Many thought this premature, especially as he was up against Columbia’s ‘woman of peace’ and the father of Chinese democracy, but one man stood out on the nominee list for me, a man whose selfless commitment for the last 14 years has ensured that thousands of women have been able to rebuild their lives in what has been described as the worst country in the world to be a woman.

Healthcare was poor in rural areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo when Denis Mukwege was a child. His father, a pastor, would often take him to visit the sick and together they would pray for them, but Denis couldn’t understand why his father didn’t give out medicine or prescriptions to help the patients. When he asked his father the question, he replied that he wasn’t a doctor. This experience made Denis realise that prayer alone was not enough.

He travelled to Burundi to study medicine and a few years later returned to the DRC to work as a general practitioner at the Hospital of Lemera in Kivu. But after witnessing the lack of pre and post natal care in his country he went to France to study gynaecology and obstetrics and came back to Lemera where he created a special maternity ward.

Panzi Hospital, Bukavu DRC © cyclopsr http-_bit.ly_NYUhoW

In 1996 though, during the first civil war of the Democratic Republic of Congo, it was destroyed by Banyamulenge militia and Mukwege left for the city of Bukavu where he built a new maternity ward with an operating room at the Panzi Hospital.

Scores of women started arrive at the hospital everyday, travelling for hundreds of miles to seek help from Dr Mukwege. Most came for the repair of fistula’s (a hole in the tissue between the vaginal wall and bladder) which cause the women to leak urine and faeces. The two main types of fistula’s he came across were those caused by childbirth – usually from prolonged, obstructed labour in areas with no adequate access to healthcare – and those caused by a new epidemic sweeping across the DRC, that of sexual violence, a weapon of war used against women and children in the ongoing conflict.

Mukwege was soon operating on 10 women a day, dealing with some of most horrific acts of sadism imaginable. Women who had been raped with bayonets, sticks and rifles, bullets shot into them, destroying their reproductive organs. In the worst case he has ever seen, one woman lost her colon, bladder, vagina and rectum after a man shot a cartridge into her. Miraculously, she survived.

Ross Kemp visited the hospital as part of his Extreme World series in 2011. He met Dr Mukwege and some of the survivors being treated at the hospital. Here’s what happened on his visit:

Ross Kemp meets Dr Denis Mukwege at the Panzi Hospital

Eve Ensler, writer of The Vagina Monologues, visited the hospital a few years ago and wrote an article for Glamour Magazine based on her trip. While at Panzi she met a young woman called Nadine who told Ensler her story: “I’m 29,” she begins. “I am from the village of Nindja. Normally there was insecurity in our area. We would hide many nights in the bush. The soldiers found us there. They killed our village chief and his children. We were 50 women. I was with my three children and my older brother; they told him to have sex with me. He refused, so they cut his head and he died.” They then murdered Nadine’s three children, all under the age of 5, and gang raped her causing a massive fistula. “When I got away from the soldiers, there was a man passing. He said, ‘What is that bad smell?’ It was me; because of my wounds, I couldn’t control my urine or faeces. I explained what had happened. The man wept right there. He and some others brought me to the Panzi Hospital.”

Nadine is just one of over 20,000 women Dr Mukwege has helped in the last 14 years and he has ensured the work will continue by training four other doctors to perform fistula surgery. Last year they completed over 1,000 surgeries.

In 2011 Mukwege, Ensler and Christine Schuler Deschryver, winner of the Guardian‘s Women of the Year award, opened the City of Joy in Bukavu after becoming fed up with countless broken promises of help from well-meaning visitors to the Panzi.

They built a centre at the City of Joy where survivors have the opportunity to take a six month intensive educational course, learning self-defense, literacy, human rights and many other skills ensuring a brighter future for the women of Congo.

Left to right: Eve Ensler, Denis Mukwege and Christine Schuler Deschryver at the City of Joy © Photograph: Paula Allen Guardian

Denis Mukwege, now 57, has sacrificed a great deal to make his country a better place for women to exist. He’s received death threats, treated rape victims as young as 3 years old and endured long periods away from his family, but he continues to work 16 hour days to repair not only the bodies of the survivors of sexual violence but their souls too.

If you would like to find out more about the Panzi Hospital or donate, here is the link –

The origins of the recent troubles in the DR Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo has been taken advantage of many times, over many years and for two reasons: money and power.

In the late 1800s King Leopold II of Belgium and his army laid claim to the country and for their own financial benefit they extorted forced labour from the natives for the collection of sap from rubber plants. Due to global demand, the sale of rubber made Leopold a small fortune but at the cost of the lives of millions of Congolese natives who were killed and mutilated by Leopold’s men for not meeting unrealistic quotas.

Many years later, after their independence from Belgium in the 1960s, president Mobutu Sese Seko changed the country’s name to Zaire and used the country’s money to lavish himself with expensive clothes and trips while his country crumbled around him. Mobutu spent the rest of the money to ensure he stayed in power for the next 30 years but his rule came to an end in the mid 1990s just as ‘Africa’s World War’, the deadliest conflict since World War Two, began.

Mobutu Sese Seko ©

In April 1994, the president of neighbouring Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, was assassinated when his plane was shot down in the Rwandan capital Kigali. An ethnic Hutu extremist regime took control of the country and over the next 100 days they murdered 800,000 ethnic Rwandan Tutsis in the last genocide of the 20th century.

Tutsi rebels, led by the current President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, managed to overthrow the Hutu extremists and drove them across the border into Zaire where they received growing support from President Mobutu.

Paul Kagame © ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

Hutu rebels attacked Rwanda from refugee camps across the border, killing Tutsi’s and forcibly recruiting Hutu men into their growing army. They started to attack native Tutsi’s in Zaire and when the Rwandan army got word it began to back rebel groups in Zaire who were now fighting both Hutu militia and Mobutu’s government troops.

The leader of the rebels in Zaire, Laurent Kabila, and the Rwandan army soon took control of the capital Kinshasa and President Mobutu was forced to flee. Kabila was put in charge of the country and he changed its name back to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But the relationship between Rwanda and the DRC didn’t last long when Kabila ordered all Rwandan military to leave the country and failed to expel Hutu militia.

Laurent Kabila ©

With the help of Uganda and Burundi, Rwanda tried to topple Kabila and almost did but the DRC had help from five other African nations including Angola and Zimbabwe.

The foreign armies, though, were more interested in money and plundered the country’s most valuable commodities –  diamonds, oil, gold and coltan/tantalum (a prized mineral used in mobile phones and mainly found in the DRC) – for their personal gain.

A peace agreement followed and saw the withdrawal of foreign troops but rebels with ties to the Rwandan army still controlled much of the east of the country and Hutu extremists including the men responsible for the genocide in Rwanda, started a new group, the FDLR, to drive the Tutsi’s from power.

Laurent Nkunda © AFP

Notorious warlord General Laurent Nkunda led a rival rebel group to protect the Tutsis from the FDLR, who he accused of being supported by the Congolese government, but he was overthrown by ‘Terminator’ Bosco Ntaganda, a man with a reputation for killing people easily. Both men are currently wanted for war crimes by the Congolese government and the International Criminal Court respectively. Ntaganda is wanted on counts which include mass murder and rape and is currently a fugitive living in the hills overlooking Kinshasa.

Nkunda was handed over to the Rwandans by Kabila’s government after they again switched sides to support the Tutsi rebel group. Nkunda is currently being held at an undisclosed location in Rwanda.

Bosco ‘The Terminator’ Ntaganda © Amnesty

After president Laurent Kabila was assassinated by his own bodyguard 11 years ago, his son Joseph Kabila took over and was elected president in 2006 in what was the first democratic elections for more than 40 years. Kabila Jnr has managed to assert some kind of control over the country during the last 6 years, but battles in the east of the DRC still continue and the government army have been accused of supporting the Hutu’s FDLR rebel group in their quest to control the country’s mines. Reports of mass rapes and killings committed by rebels and government troops still continue. Kabila has commented on the situation stating “It’s shocking. These kinds of acts are simply unforgivable.” He even visited the Panzi hospital back in 2010 but it remains to be seen what positive changes he will make in a country where rape is becoming ingrained as part of the culture in the east.

President Joseph Kabila, left, and Denis Mukwege at the Panzi Hospital © Panzi

But he needs only to look to Denis Mukwege to see what hard work and dedication can do in transforming the lives of others. Let’s hope he is inspired to make his country a better place after meeting a man who is, in my eyes, a hero.

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