Thursday, April 3, 2008

Panzi Hospital

This morning I visited Panzi Hospital, a general hospital on the outskirts of Bukavu that treats women victims of sexual violence and was recently featured on 60 Minutes for that reason. I was accompanied by Dr. Bora, a lovely young woman who is the medical doctor in charge of Dr.Florimond Kabanda’s clinics. We were driven by another Flory, his brother who speaks excellent English.

Panzi Hospital is big and sprawling, with at least 12 single-story wings branching out from the main walkways. Flower gardens of roses, hibiscus, geraniums, and impatients surround plots of grass that separate the wings, so it is a very pleasant place. Because we visited on Sunday, everyone was lounging outside, taking it easy.

Dr. Justin, a general practitioner and gynecology surgeon, took us on a tour of the grounds and explained the treatment process for incoming women patients. First they are admitted and given a card, then sent directly to a counselor who determines their trauma level—low, medium, or high. After that they receive a physical exam with blood tests, etc. Because the doctors here have found that patients recover more quickly after counseling, they postpone surgery, unless a matter of life and death, until the women stabilize emotionally.

When the women victims first started coming in, they were put in wards with other patients who had not suffered war-related atrocities. This did not work well, as there is considerable shame attached to being raped in Congo and other parts of Africa. In addition to being brutally violated, the victim is often treated as if she perpetrated the crime and is driven from her home in disgrace.

Counseling is usually done one-on-one, although they do group counseling to ameliorate the shame. When the women realize there are many others like themselves, they feel less dishonor and are able to heal more quickly.

The doctors do not use psychotropic medication to treat trauma and its related emotional problems. For example, if a woman is severely depressed, she will be given more time with the counselor, not more drugs.

Panzi Hospital has just completed a new building devoted to treating women victims of sexual violence. There are two wards, one for patients recovering from surgery, the other for those awaiting surgery. Each ward has 60 beds. The rooms are spacious with windows running down two sides, so there is plenty of light. Additionally, the building houses offices and two large surgical rooms designed to repair fistulas, which are unfortunately a common result of gang rape.

The women congregate outside in the sun or under a large porch with picnic tables. The shaded area is used for meals, literacy training, and teaching crafts, such as crocheting, basket making, and knitting. Women who are unable to return to their village, either from shame or threat of violence, will have to learn how to make a living as most were farmers before the war.

What happens to these women after they leave the hospital is a matter of grave concern.

The ones able to return home are fortunate, but those whose husbands are dead or have rejected them, are left to survive without skills on their own. Many haul rocks and sand to feed their families, literally backbreaking work as loads can weigh as much as 100 lbs. After gynecological surgery, this heavy work destroys their bodies permanently. Older children are left to care for younger children, and school is out of the question for people at this poverty level. And we’re not talking about a few hundred women; there are literally thousands of women in this situation in Congo right now.
I chose not to take pictures of the women to repect their privacy.

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