NEW YORK (AP) -- A Congolese surgeon who treated tens of thousands of women who were gang-raped received a prize honoring his courage Tuesday and said the women he treated "changed my life."
Denis Mukwege accepted the 2013 Civil Courage Prize for his work at the Panzi Hospital, which he founded in 1999 in the capital of the war-torn province of South Kivu.
The U.N. has said various armed groups are behind rapes in eastern Congo. The Congolese army and M23 rebels it fights also have been accused of raping civilians.
"Meeting these women completely changed my life," Mukwege said. "My profession as a medical doctor led me to become a direct witness to a mass crime that is hard to fully understand. This is because sexual violence targets our most precious resource: our mothers, our wives and our daughters."
Eastern Congo's mineral riches have been exploited for years by a myriad of armed rebel groups and militias who have used violence to control the region's mines. M23 formally launched its rebellion last year, drawing its name from a failed March 23, 2009 peace agreement with the Congolese government.
Mukwege said in his speech that rape is probably "history's oldest and least condemned crime" and said that struggles over the metals used in cell phones have contributed to the loss of five million lives in his country.
"There is nothing inevitable about this situation," he said. "We can bring positive change to the Congo."
Last year, Mukwege in a speech at the United Nations, lashed out at the international community for its inaction on his country's civil war. He moved to Europe following an assassination attempt against him last October.
The Civil Courage Prize is awarded by the New York-based Train Foundation.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.