A True Hero

JWW Board Member Diana Buckhantz and Director of Policy and Programs Mike Brand are traveling in the Democratic of Republic of Congo's eastern provinces to work with survivors of the country's decades-long conflict, which has claimed nearly six million lives. They are meeting with JWW's partners on the ground, with whom JWW works to create innovative programs and projects that change lives and transform communities. This is Diana's sixth trip to Congo with JWW, and Mike's first as a staff member of JWW. For more information on supporting the projects described, please contact Jewish World Watch at info@jww.org.

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The word "hero" is used far too often today. It seems as though we bandy the word around for actions that should be considered normal human behavior. In my travels to Congo with Jewish World Watch, however, I have had the honor to meet several of the real heroes in the world. Some of these are men who have gone against the culture in which they were raised -- putting themselves at risk of great personal danger -- to fight to protect and defend women in their communities and speak out against the massive rapes and the gender inequity in Congo.

Today, I met another such man in a small, very poor village called Kavuma, 30 kilometers outside the city of Bukavu. Dr. Pascal Namegabe is a 35-year-old doctor. He has been practicing medicine for nine years in Congo. He is well-educated, handsome and charismatic, and he speaks with both confidence and humility. One feels confident that he could work anywhere he wanted. Instead, five months ago, Dr. Pascal opened a clinic with his own money in Kavuma. The clinic specializes in women and children, as he heard that the area was seeing more and more rapes -- of the most horrific kind -- rapes of very young children, some as young as two or three years old.

Kavuma and the outlying areas have a population that has absolutely no access to health care, along with a very high birth rate and an equally high infant mortality rate. There is no prenatal care. The clinic sees approximately 10 births a day and they perform about 25-30 Caesarean sections a month. Many of the mothers are young girls under 18 years old who have been forced into marriage. Others are survivors of rape. One in three babies dies in childbirth. Women walk for one or two days to get to the clinic, and many cannot pay the $10 fee for the services (the cost at a regular hospital would be at least 10 times higher). Some women stay months. The women say they are waiting to leave until they can pay the $10; the truth is that while Dr. Pascal would let them leave at any time without paying the fee, he knows they want to stay because they are afraid to go home. The clinic has been attacked three times but his security guards managed to scare the perpetrators away.

We try to understand why men are raping young children. Dr. Pascal explains that this is a population with virtually no education so they are easily convinced of things -- like wizardry. The members of militia groups, who are being demobilized and are mentally disturbed from their experiences, believe that if you rape a young girl you will be made strong and young again. They are often the men perpetrating the rapes. This is obviously no excuse, but it is clearly something that needs to be addressed.

When we ask why no one in the community (including the police) does anything about the rapes, Dr. Pascal replies that "no one has the courage to speak out. People live with constant fear that if they speak out they will be killed. Unless we change the mentality at all levels, nothing will change."

None of this deters Dr. Pascal, however. He intends to start a family-planning program as soon as he has the funds, and he would like to find a way to transport the women to and from the hospital so they do not have to walk for days after a cesarean.

Dr. Pascal is changing things in other ways too. He greatly believes in gender equity and so out of a staff of 12, seven are women and in prominent positions, including doctors, the pharmacist, the anesthesiologist, and nurses. Meeting him, seeing his clinic, and understanding the challenges he faces truly left me moved beyond words.

If the definition of a hero is "a person, who in the face of danger and adversity displays courage, bravery, and self-sacrifice for some greater good," I don't think there can be any doubt that Dr. Pascal is the real deal.

I am forever grateful to Jewish World Watch and the important work it supports that I have the privilege and honor to witness first-hand the remarkable humanity of people like Dr. Pascal. They bring so much hope to the world.