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Sophie tells Congolese rape survivors their voices can inspire change

The countess is on an official visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo – the first by a member of the British royal family.

04 October 2022

The Countess of Wessex has told rape survivors she met in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) “your voices are what is going to change things”.

Sophie – the first British royal to travel to the DRC – toured the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, South Kivu province, where pioneering and critical medical treatment is given to women who have endured brutal, conflict-related sexual violence and trauma.

Royal visit to Democratic Republic of Congo
The countess with Dr Denis Mukwege at the hospital (Jane Barlow/PA)

The countess thanked the survivors “from the bottom of my heart” for sharing their stories, saying it was a privilege and an honour to meet them.

“It is you that inspire me to carry on with the work that I do here, and in other places of conflict around the world,” Sophie said.

She added: “I look forward to keeping in touch with you, the Panzi Hospital, the (Panzi) foundation, and all of its work.

Royal visit to Democratic Republic of Congo
Sophie meeting medical staff and survivors (Jane Barlow/PA)

“I thank you again from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to come here to hear your stories, which are so important, because if we’re going to change anything – your stories and your voices are what is going to change things.”

Sophie has publicly committed herself to supporting the UK’s work helping survivors of rape, sexual violence and exploitation in war.

She was shown around the newly-opened operating room on Tuesday, spent time with some of the survivors being cared for at the Panzi and spoke to its team of experts.

Royal visit to Democratic Republic of Congo
The Countess of Wessex (centre) with Dr Denis Mukwege (second right) meet medical staff and survivors on a post-op ward (Jane Barlow/PA)

At one point, she looked moved as she held both her hands crossed to her chest as she sat and spoke to one woman who was lying on a hospital bed in a post-op ward.

She was also pictured wearing disposable blue medical scrubs as she listened intently while being shown around.

Sophie also visited a hair salon classroom during a visit to the Panzi Foundation and learnt about the holistic approaches also being used to help the women.

Royal visit to Democratic Republic of Congo
The Countess of Wessex in a hair salon classroom during a visit to the Panzi Foundation (Jane Barlow/PA)

The Panzi Foundation has supported more than 70,000 survivors of conflict-related sexual violence since 1999.

The countess took part in a textiles workshop and sat at a sewing machine, helping with the fabric creations.

Royal visit to Democratic Republic of Congo
The Countess of Wessex takes part in a textiles workshop (Jane Barlow/PA)

At the start of the day, she warmly embraced world-renowned surgeon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr Denis Mukwege.

A smiling Sophie put her arms out and hugged Dr Mukwege, who founded the hospital and was honoured for his work helping sexually-abused women.

Royal visit to Democratic Republic of Congo
The Countess of Wessex meets Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr Denis Mukwege (Jane Barlow/PA)

He has treated thousands who have been raped amid fighting between armed groups seeking to control some of the central African nation’s vast mineral wealth.

Sophie said of Dr Mukwege: “Not only is he an inspiration in the DRC, he’s also an inspiration around the world.”

Some 3,500 babies born of sexual violence in conflict are delivered in the hospital each year and Sophie also heard about the vital support given to the mothers.

Royal visit to Democratic Republic of Congo
The pair embrace outside the hospital (Jane Barlow/PA

The countess has become the only member of the royal family to travel to the DRC so far, after visiting at the request of the Foreign Office.

She is being accompanied by Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict.

Royal visit to Democratic Republic of Congo
The Countess of Wessex meets Jeanne Mukunilwa, a survivor of conflict-related sexual violence at the City of Joy (Jane Barlow/PA)

Sophie also spoke to survivors and guests at the City of Joy – a centre which provides a transformational leadership community for women survivors.

It works to give them valuable new skills and build their confidence, supporting many to take on leadership roles in their communities.

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