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© AFP
Dr. Denis Mukwege and his team have treated more than 30,000 rape victims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He has described how women arrive at his hospital sometimes naked, usually bleeding and leaking urine and faeces from torn vaginas
The European Union has awarded a top human rights prize to a Congolese doctor renowned for treating victims of sexual violence in a country with the dubious title of rape capital of the world.

Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege won the European Union's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, E.U. Parliament president Martin Schulz announced on Tuesday.

According to Schulz, Mukwege was "unanimously" selected by judges for his "fight for the protection especially of women."

Mukwege is widely regarded as the world's leading expert on treating internal injuries caused by gang rape. He is also the founder of the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Since the outbreak of the Second Congo War, Mukwege and his team have treated more than 30,000 rape victims.

During the war, Mukwege became known for working up to 18 hours a day, and performing as many as 10 surgeries in a single shift. Since the war he has been credited with revolutionizing treatment of rape injuries, and has become one of the most well-known African doctors on the world stage.

"Despite traveling regularly abroad to advocate women's rights and managing Panzi Hospital, Mukwege continues to see patients and perform surgery two days a week," the European Parliament said of Mukwege.

However, Mukwege isn't loved by everyone in his home country. In 2012 he narrowly survived an assassination attempt. The incident occurred just weeks after he delivered a speech to the United Nations slamming the DRC government and wider international community for failing to combat impunity for rapists and war criminals in the African nation.

The attempt on his life prompted the doctor to leave the DRC for Europe, though reports suggested the Panzi Hospital was impacted by his departure. He returned to the DRC in early 2013 to resume his work.

In a BBC interview shortly after his return to the war torn country, Mukwege said groups of 20 women at a time had taken it upon themselves to guard him 24 hours a day.

"They don't have any weapons - they don't have anything. But it is a form of security to feel so close to the people you are working with. Their enthusiasm gives me the confidence to continue my work as usual," he stated.

He said it was the strength of the DRC's women that inspired him to return in the first place. "These women have taken the courage to protest about my attack to the authorities. They even grouped together to pay for my ticket home - these are women who do not have anything, they live on less than a dollar a day," he said.

The doctor will officially be handed the prize during a ceremony in Strasbourg, France on November 26.

Rape in the DRC

The rampant levels of rape in the DRC have earned it the dubious title, rape capital of the world. According to recent estimates from research published in the American Journal of Public Health, over 1,000 women are raped every day in the country.

Healthcare is limited to non-existent in most of the DRC. Human rights groups say even basic medications like painkillers are often unavailable; let alone the equipment, expertise and medicine needed for rape victims suffering acute trauma.

The average life expectancy in the DRC is around 56 years. Levels of rape first began spiraling out of control during the war, which raged between 1998 and 2003.

The war left over 5.4 million people dead, making it the worst international conflict since World War II.

Mukwege told the BBC that when war first broke out and rape victims began flooding into his hospital, he soon realized these atrocities "weren't just violent acts of war, but part of a strategy."

"You had situations where multiple people were raped at the same time, publicly - a whole village might be raped during the night. In doing this, they hurt not just the victims but the whole community, which they force to watch," he stated.

Mukwege explained to the British broadcaster that the "result of this strategy is that people are forced to flee their villages, abandon their fields, their resources, everything."

"It's very effective," he concluded.

Even though the war is officially over, the DRC remains plagued by militia violence, as competing armed groups struggle for control of chunks of the ravaged country. Like the fighting, rape also continues, but militias aren't the only ones to blame. Government forces have likewise been accused of widespread rape and other human rights abuses, while U.N. peacekeepers have been criticized for failing to halt these atrocities.

"The conflict in D.R. Congo is not between groups of religious fanatics. Nor is it a conflict between states," Mukwege has argued. "This is a conflict caused by economic interests - and it is being waged by destroying Congolese women," he added.