The Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation puts survivors of wartime sexual violence at the core of its mission.

We support survivors’ demands for a world where sexual violence as a weapon of war is no longer tolerated,and bears consequences for individual perpetrators and states. We work for a future where survivors receive the holistic care and reparations that they need to rebuild their lives. We create opportunities for survivors to speak out and be heard, and where they can organise to create change, influence policies, and demand justice and accountability. We use national and international advocacy and global campaigning in order to achieve lasting and systemic change. Our source of inspiration remains Dr Mukwege and his team at Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The impact of their work in DRC motivates us to scale-up their best practices elsewhere.

Problem analysis

Sexual violence used systematically as a weapon of conflict is uniquely destructive1: it effectively destroys the life of the victim without killing them, leaving them with a heavy burden of physical and psychological harm for the rest of their life. Beyond the individual, it may aim to destroy the reproductive potential of a group or community, and to spread disease. By committing these crimes in public, or by coercing family and community members either to witness or take part in atrocities, perpetrators impact the whole community, destroying social bonds and relationships. As a weapon of conflict, sexual violence aims to demoralise a community or a whole ethnic group, destroying their resilience and ability to rebuild and recover.

Sexual violence in conflict takes many forms2, including rape, gang rape, penetration with objects or weapons, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy or abortion, forced marriage, sexual torture, and a host of other horrific abuses designed to humiliate and destroy the sexual identity and autonomy of the victim3.

Beyond injury and disease, the psychological and social impacts of humiliation and shame are corrosive for victims and their communities alike. Victims are typically excluded from their families and communities, and children born of rape face lifelong stigmatisation and rejection.  What is more, communities and authorities fail to hold perpetrators to account, preferring to maintain the status quo, enabling impunity and fuelling a downward spiral of abuses.

Brutal sexual violence committed in conflict settings is also connected with an increase in all forms of gender-based violence. Domestic violence, child marriage, and sexual exploitation are all exacerbated in humanitarian settings for many reasons, from family separation to food insecurity and the impunity of perpetrators. Rape and sexual assault are also committed out of individual opportunism in a lawless context.

Sexual violence does not stop when the conflict ends. Armed militias may demobilise or be incorporated in the regular army, but often continue to commit crimes for as long as lawlessness persists. Sometimes entire generations are brought up to believe sexual violence is a common part of life, or that it is the norm.

Sexual violence is deeply rooted in a society’s gender norms which determine what society expects of women and men, their roles, privileges and limitations. Gender inequality exists in all societies, also prior to conflict and displacement. In fragile or humanitarian settings it becomes a fertile ground for the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. We see sexual violence in conflict through a gendered lens. That means we understand that by ‘weaponising’ gendered roles populations are more vulnerable to sexual violence as a weapon of war, and it is more likely that this type of violence will be used.

The change we want to see

We believe that for change to happen it is crucial that the silence around sexual violence as a weapon of war needs to be broken.

We support survivors’ demands for a world where sexual violence as a weapon of war is no longer tolerated, and bears consequences for individual perpetrators and states. We work for a future where survivors receive the holistic care and compensation they need to rebuild their lives. We create opportunities for survivors to speak out and be heard, and where they can organise to create change, influence policies, and demand justice and accountability.

We are working towards a future where sexual violence in conflict is no longer seen as inevitable, but is recognised for what it is: a crime that should have serious consequences for both the perpetrators as well as states that tolerate or condone it. We want the international community to draw a red line against wartime sexual violence and strengthen accountability for states and perpetrators.

Our objective: to change the collective response to sexual violence in conflict

To heal from the harms of sexual violence, victims need to regain agency and control over their lives, their decisions, and their bodies. Their needs are complex and interconnected, and the solutions need to be designed with this in mind. Essential for their reintegration into their community is for their dignity and humanity to be recognised.

Our approach is survivor-centred, meaning that survivors themselves define their needs and solutions. We work to create the conditions that will allow survivors to take the lead in fighting for their rights. Our aim is to transform victims into survivors, and survivors into agents of change.

How do we see change happening?

The Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation sees three, interconnected strategies as essential for change to happen:


The underlying assumption for all these strategies is that the collective silence around sexual violence is what makes it such an effective weapon. It fuels a sense of shame in victims and their family members, it enables impunity and prevents victims from seeking support.

Our strategies reinforce each other, creating an enabling environment where survivors can genuinely become agents of change:

  • When survivors have access to dignified, integrated, quality care, which meets all of their needs, they can recover and heal, and regain their personal agency.
  • When survivors are given safe spaces to share their experiences, and to have their voices heard, they can support each other and start to reclaim their power. They can reach out to other victims of sexual violence and encourage them to come forward to claim the services that they deserve.
  • When survivors know their rights, and can voice their needs, they can become agents of change. They can organise themselves to claim their rights to justice and reparations.
  • When survivors and their communities speak out about sexual violence they can break through deeply rooted taboos which blame victims, exclude them from decision-making, and leave them powerless to change their situation.
  • When survivors’ experiences and testimonies are documented on their own terms, the harms that they have suffered can be publicly acknowledged, and the widespread denial of these atrocities can be challenged.
  • When survivors are supported to participate meaningfully in humanitarian programming and peace negotiations their needs and voices can be kept at the heart of the laws, policies and programmes that impact them.
  • When proper survivor-centred accountability mechanisms are in place, survivors will be able to seek formal justice, breaking the cycle of impunity and recurrence.

Programmes and activities

Holistic healing

We promote the model of holistic, integrated care to survivors of wartime sexual violence pioneered at Panzi Hospital DRC as a human rights standard globally, and we facilitate its roll out to other (post) conflict zones. Wherever possible, we promote an approach where these services are integrated in existing healthcare systems, and we work with local actors to embed the model sustainably in the local context.

Panzi’s model of holistic care is structured around four pillars that deal with the inter-connected consequences of sexual violence. Each survivor of sexual violence has a social assistant assigned to him or her from the start. Together they design a tailor-made healing pathway that includes:

  • medical care and, where needed, surgery for severe gynaecological injuries
  • psychological support through one-on-one support and/or group counselling
  • legal representation, and assistance in obtaining forensic evidence
  • socio-economic assistance such as literacy training, small business management, and microcredit programmes.

At Panzi all four ‘pillars’ are integrated in a one-stop-centre, accessible at one location, with coherent referrals and co-ordination between services. For survivors this means holistic care without the risk of stigmatisation, as anybody could be visiting a hospital for a variety of reasons. Coordinated services avoids survivors having to retell their story to multiple professionals, and enables them to choose from the services as and when they feel they are ready.

Strong survivor networks and survivor-led activism

Survivors face crippling social stigma that prevents them from seeking justice, excludes them from their communities, and often leaves them to care for themselves (and their children) without any support. Many survivors suffer alone, unable to fight for their rights, or to influence programmes meant to support them. We believe this needs to change.

We bring survivors of conflict-related sexual violence together in a global action network, and strengthen national survivor networks for mutual support, to break the silence around these crimes, and to call for a proactive political response from the national and international communities.

Our support for survivor-led movements aims to tackle stigma, and to enable survivors to access the care and justice they deserve. We take a multi-pronged approach, giving different levels of support depending on survivor’s needs and their personal healing process.

  • We organise regional and global retreats, giving victims and survivors a safe space where they can speak out, share with their peers and receive support
  • We support local survivor networks with capacity building and resources, enabling them to develop solutions and actions according to their own context
  • We connect local and regional survivor networks with SEMA (‘Speak out!’), the global network, for mutual support, inspiration, learning and growth
  • We facilitate survivor-led advocacy and awareness raising at local, national and international levels
  • We enable survivors to document their testimonies through creative approaches, to enable them to express experiences which are beyond words and to shift the narrative on sexual violence in conflict.

Wherever possible, we embed survivor activists and networks in the wider CSO ‘landscape’ at a local level for mutual learning and sustainability, and to coordinate joint advocacy towards service providers and authorities.

Justice and Accountability

We advocate for an end to the complicit silence and tolerance of sexual violence crimes committed in conflict, pushing for changes in policy and institutional behaviour to end impunity and ensure survivor-centred reparations and redress, and tackling the obstacles to justice that allow perpetrators to avoid facing the consequences of their actions.

The Red Line Initiative

Sexual violence in conflict is not inevitable. It is used intentionally and systematically to punish, humiliate, instigate fear, and control populations.  Yet, too often sexual violence is marginalised, or omitted entirely, in the coverage and analysis of wars – and in the responses to conflict. We believe that if more people really understood the ways in which sexual violence is used in conflict, how devastating its consequences are – and that perpetrators act with absolute impunity – there would be a sustained demand for change. 

The Red Line Initiative is rooted in the belief that sexual violence as a method of warfare can be prevented and must be prioritised as a wholly unacceptable tactic of warfare.

Through consultations with experts, survivors and partners we have identified gaps and problems in existing legal frameworks and prevention tools and practices; however, the biggest single issues are a lack of awareness and political will to implement existing obligations or to take a firm stand when those obligations are violated.  

The Mukwege Foundation believes that clear and robust action is needed to address this systemic problem.  Our innovative approach will: 

  1. evoke a clear moral rejection and international outcry when sexual violence is used as a method of warfare;
  2. ensure a more robust and timely response by states in line with their international obligations; and
  3. establish clear legal obligations that increase the costs not only for individuals but also for governments if they fail to act.

We have supported SEMA members to create and launch their Call to Action, demanding that governments and the international community take them seriously and act to stop sexual violence in conflict. Alongside the Call to Action, and based on expert meetings, we have created a Legal Guidebook to address the awareness gap and provide an accessible, easy-to-use tool setting out existing State obligations under international legal frameworks. Using these tools, and building on the current momentum and opportunities that we have identified, we propose a 3-pronged strategy to close the accountability gap by:

1. Supporting grassroots and survivor-led advocacy towards States to live up to their obligations, advocating for changes in legislation, enforcement of laws and shifts in political priorities to strengthen the prevention of and response to conflict-related sexual violence.

2. Acting as a catalyst for key opportunities and initiatives:

We will hold key players in this field accountable to their commitments and obligations, showcase advocacy successes and innovative practices, maintain pressure to keep this issue high on the agenda, and collaborate with initiatives like the PSVI Alliance, leveraging opportunities as they arise to strengthen accountability frameworks and the enforcement of these.

3. Creating a high-profile, digital media campaign:

We will deliver an online campaign featuring Red Line Champions, The Elders, and other high-profile supporters to build awareness, amplify survivors’ demands and keep building political momentum and engagement.


1 See United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Resolution 1820 (2008), UN Doc. S/RES/1820 (2008), 19 June 2008, para 1

2 CRSV refers to incidents or patterns of sexual violence that may include rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilisation, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity, against women, men, girls or boys. Such incidents or patterns occur in conflict or post-conflict settings or other situations of concern (e.g. political strife), and have a direct or indirect link with the conflict itself, i.e. temporal, geographical and/or causal link. CRSV can, depending on the circumstances, constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, acts of torture or genocide). The link with conflict may be evident in the profile and motivations of the perpetrator(s), the profile of the victim(s), the climate of impunity/weakened State capacity, cross-border dimensions and/or the fact that it violates the terms of a ceasefire agreement. (Analytical and Conceptual Framing of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict, 2011)

3 See “The Civil Society Declaration on Sexual Violence“, 2019, for an attempt to fully define acts of sexual violence, produced in consultation with self-identified victims.

Our partners