You Will Learn the Meaning of Muzombo

The Congo will become a leader in the fight against sexual violence. At least that’s the plan. Stunning as it is.

By Dr. Denis Mukwege

A 16-year old girl from a village near the town of Numbi was raped by three Hutu militia fighters, one of whom impregnated her and gave her HIV. She sits at a clinic in Goma with her child and mother, who is covering her face. (Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum)

This December, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, chiefs from the Lega tribe, on their own initiative, came to Bukavu from their villages, hours away, to express their decision to set up new traditional laws not only against sexual violence and rape but also forbidding early marriage for girls, forced sororate or levirate marriages (when a young girl is married to the brother of her deceased husband), child labor and privileging boys’ education while keeping girls uneducated. They are setting those acts as taboos, locally known as “Muzombo,” which entitle any offender to the most severe punishment in the community. Any offense will be thoroughly investigated at the traditional level, and seriously punished.

The crisis of sexual violence in the Congo and the use of rape as a weapon of mass destruction, against which we have been fighting for the last 16 years, remains. But we are hopeful now that nations worldwide seem to be rising to the issue and deciding to engage. In June, the British government hosted a Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London. One hundred fifty nations represented by their ministers of foreign affairs took a stand against sexual violence with a unified resolution. Barack Obama signed an executive order to freeze the assets of all criminals and their accomplices who commit or have committed crimes in the Congo. Those diverse engagements, from the highest positioned leaders to the common citizen in the society, give us hope for the year 2015.

Dr. Denis Mukwege is the founder and medical director of the Panzi Hospital and Foundations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the winner of the 2014 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

As told to Taffy Brodesser-Akner