SEXUAL violence has been used as a weapon of war since time immemorial but two particular examples in recent years stand out: the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo – once described by a senior UN official as “the rape capital of the world” – and the abuses perpetrated by Isil as it gained ground in Syria and Iraq.
Yesterday, Denis Mukwege, a renowned gynaecologist who has spent almost two decades treating victims of sexual violence in his homeland of the DRC, and Nadia Murad, an activist from Iraq’s Yazidi minority and survivor of sexual slavery by Isil, were jointly awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.
As the Me Too movement continues to blaze around the world highlighting the abuse and mistreatment of women, it seems fitting the Nobel goes to two individuals who have done so much to draw attention to the horrifying use of rape as a weapon of war.
“Denis Mukwege is the helper who has devoted his life to defending these victims. Nadia Murad is the witness who tells of the abuses perpetrated against herself and others,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in its citation.
“Each of them in their own way has helped to give greater visibility to war-time sexual violence, so the perpetrators can be held accountable for their actions.”
I interviewed Mukwege during a reporting assignment in eastern Congo in 2012. He told me of the 30,000 patients that have been treated at his clinic in the city of Bukavu since it opened at the height of the conflict in 1999.
The stories of the women, many of whom required surgery to repair their internal organs after being subjected to sexual violence, were shocking. The brutal war that claimed the lives of more than five million people might have formally ended in 2003 but the violence continued, particularly when it comes to women.
Mukwege and other doctors I spoke to feared rape had almost become something close to a norm in a society so ravaged and traumatised by years of war. A study published in 2011 in the ‘American Journal of Public Health’ concluded that 1,152 women were raped every day in Congo, equal to 48 each hour.
Mukwege’s dedication, not only to his patients, but to the wider cause of ending rape as a weapon of war, was clear. Yesterday, the Nobel Committee described him as “the foremost, most unifying symbol, both nationally and internationally, of the struggle to end sexual violence in war and armed conflicts.”
It added: “The importance of Dr Mukwege’s enduring, dedicated and selfless efforts in this field cannot be overstated. He has repeatedly condemned impunity for mass rape and criticised the Congolese government and other countries for not doing enough to stop the use of sexual violence against women as a strategy and weapon of war.”
Mukwege’s campaigning has not been without risk. In 2012 armed men stormed his home, shot at him and killed his bodyguard. Some observers linked the attack to a speech he had given at the UN shortly before in which he had denounced not only sexual violence but the impunity exploited by perpetrators in Congo.
There is a devastating sentence in Nadia Murad’s memoir ‘The Last Girl’. “At some point, there was rape and nothing else,” she writes. “This becomes your normal day.”
Murad was just 21 when Isil rampaged through her village in northern Iraq in 2014.
Six of her brothers and her mother were killed while she was taken into captivity and repeatedly raped. She escaped after three months and has now become a women’s rights advocate, particularly for her fellow Yazidis, telling the UN Security Council about her ordeal in 2015.
Murad is the second youngest Nobel Prize laureate after Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot by militants but who survived to become a campaigner for girls’ education.
Asked whether the Me Too movement had inspired the Nobel committee’s choice, chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen said: “Me Too and war crimes are not quite the same. But they have in common that they see the suffering of women, the abuse of women and that it is important women leave the concept of shame behind and speak up.”
The Nobel Foundation has been hit with its own sex abuse scandal at the Swedish Academy, the body which chooses the winner of the Nobel Literature prize. No Nobel for literature will be awarded this year as a result.