Press Releases

2007 Releases

Harvard Program Addresses Rape In the Congo

For immediate release: October 11, 2007

Cambridge, MA -- Widespread sexual violence toward women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is drawing increasing international concern, as reported by The New York Times front-page story on October 7th.  The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) announced today that they will send a second team of physicians and public health specialists to the region to provide high-level care to women suffering from severe rape-related injuries.

In some regions of Eastern DRC, as many as 70% of girls and women of all ages have been raped or sexually mutilated. The uncommonly brutal nature of the crimes leads to a host of health problems for the survivor: pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease (including HIV), and traumatic fistula - a condition that leaves women incontinent of urine, stool, or both. Many women are abandoned by their families and become homeless and destitute, often with their children in tow.

In May 2007, HHI began working with Panzi Hospital, one of the few medical facilities in the region, to enhance surgical capacity.  At any given time the hospital treats up to 450 patients, the majority of whom are survivors of sexual violence.  The hospital continues to receive a dozen new women per day suffering from severe rape-related injuries.  Panzi Hospital Director, Dr. Denis Mukwege, and the rape crisis in eastern Congo were profiled this past Sunday, October 7th, in a front-page article of The New York Times.

In November 2007, a second team of HHI-affiliated surgeons and researchers will return to the hospital to perform gynecologic surgery, begin training programs, and initiate research that will address the root causes of this epidemic of violence. To avoid duplicating efforts already underway in the region, HHI is coordinating with other organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the International Urogynecological Association, V-Day, Brigham & Women's Hospital, and University of Illinois.

Dr. Julia VanRooyen, Principal Investigator for HHI's Panzi Project and a specialist in urogynecologic surgery, says of the program's goals, "We are providing high level surgical expertise to assist with the most complex cases at Panzi and to assist Dr. Mukwege in the training of additional Congolese surgeons in these complex procedures.  In addition to personnel, the hospital has many other material needs, including ones as basic as soap and suture, as well as specific surgical equipment that is considered both basic and necessary in operating rooms here in the States."

Additionally, recent research and recommendations by HHI investigators on the topic of rape as a weapon of war in other conflict settings have shaped international policy and informed the humanitarian community's understanding of why mass atrocities occur. Policy reviews and information on the phenomenon of mass rape are available to the public on the HHI website.

The following HHI-affiliated experts are available for comment:

 ·    Julia VanRooyen, MD - Principal Investigator, Panzi Hospital Project, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative,, 508-358-4869. Dr. VanRooyen led HHI's trip to Panzi Hospital in May 2007, where she assisted Dr. Mukwege in complex urogynecological surgeries. Julia VanRooyen, MD, F.A.C.O.G., is a Fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative in Boston and a gynecologic surgeon, with subspecialty training in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery.  Dr. VanRooyen has worked in several international settings including Azerbaijan, Somalia, Kenya, and Russia.

  • Jennifer Leaning, MD, SMH - Co-Director, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative,, 617-384-8368. Dr. Leaning is a Professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School, and a Senior Advisor in International and Policy Studies, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She is an expert in gender-based violence in war, international humanitarian rights, humanitarian law, population health in crisis settings, disaster medicine, disaster management, and medical ethics in international emergencies.

About HHI

The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) was established in 2005 as a multidisciplinary research and academic center at Harvard University. Led by Dr. Jennifer Leaning and Dr. Michael VanRooyen, HHI fosters interdisciplinary collaboration in order to: improve the effectiveness of humanitarian strategies for relief, protection and prevention; instill human rights principles and practices in these strategies; and educate and train the next generation of humanitarian leaders. More information is available at


Erin Lyons

Director of External Affairs

Harvard Humanitarian Initiative