Fighting sexual violence -Nobel Peace Prize winners Mukwege and Murad

Published 15th October 2018

The Nobel Prize has had its fair share of controversy despite being established with the best intentions. It is an award designed to recognise those in service of humanity in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. Particularly in the peace category there have been some dubious awards and some undeserving winners, but this year’s Nobel Peace Prize could not have gone to two more deserving activists: Yazidi, sexual slavery survivor Nadia Murad and Congolese gynaecologist Dr Denis Mukwege. Both are working for important causes that have not received sufficient attention from the international community: sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and sexual slavery organised by ISIL.

Commended “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict”. Murad and Mukwege, in their respective ways have raised awareness and shed light on situations facing their respective communities.

Murad was kidnapped by ISIL in 2014 when they invaded her village in Sinjar, Iraq. First ISIL insisted the Yazidi convert to Islam and killed anyone who refused to comply. 600 people, mostly men were killed the remaining women and girls were forced into slavery. Murad was held captive for one month in Mosul, 2 hours away from Sinjar. During this time, Murad was subjected to rape and abuse as a sexual slave for ISIL fighters.

Murad was one of 6700 sexual slaves taken by ISIL that year. She tried to escape and was punished for it by being repeatedly gang raped. She tried again when her captor left the door unlocked. This time she managed. She escaped the compound and found refuge with a family that was not sympathetic to ISIL’s cause. They helped smuggle her out of ISIS controlled areas and to a refugee camp.

Murad eventually was accepted as a refugee in Germany. It was there that she started her campaign and using her story to remind the world that the suffering of the Yazidi continues. She said, “My story, told honestly and matter-of-factly, is the best weapon I have against terrorism, and I plan on using it until those terrorists are put on trial.”

In December 2015, Murad addressed the United Nations Security Council and then went on to establish Nadia’s Initiative, an organisation that aims to raise awareness and provide assistance to victims of sexual violence, and to stabilise and assist communities in crisis.

1500 women remain in captivity today and 300 000 internally displaced people are living in camps. Young Yazidi boys have been forced into ISIL training camps. The Yazidi population are victims of the crime of genocide as ISIL seek to destroy them through sexual slavery, other forms of enslavement, murder, and forced displacement. As reported by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the situation remains largely unaddressed. Murad’s work clearly continues to be absolutely essential.

The work of, co-winner, Denis Mukwege falls in the same category as far as both necessity and nature are concerned. Mukwege is a gynaecologist who has dedicated his life to assisting women who have been sexually violated in the DRC. His work includes providing reconstructive surgery, psychosocial support and raising awareness about the use of rape as a tool of war whilst advocating for women’s rights.

The eastern regions of the DRC continue to experience conflict and extremely high rates of sexual violence. Margot Wallström, the former special representative on sexual violence to the UN, dubbed the DRC the “rape capital” of the world in 2010. A 2011 study published in the American Journal for Public Health estimates that 48 women are raped every hour in the DRC this includes non-conflict related rape. In 2017 United Nations Women estimated that about 1 million women have been sexually violated over the last 20 years of the conflict in the DRC.

It is doctors like Mukwege, who have worked tirelessly to battle the scourge of sexual violence. He established the Panzi Hospital in 1999 and since then he and his staff have helped to care for over 50,000 survivors of sexual violence.

After denouncing the violence in eastern DRC and calling for accountability, an attempt was made on his life in 2012. His family was held hostage, and his trusted bodyguard and friend was killed during the assassination attempt. Mukwege left the country but returned a year later to continue his work in the community.

Panzi Hospital was almost closed in 2015 when the Congolese government suddenly demanded $600 000 for years of back taxes never mind the fact that all Congolese hospitals in the DRC are tax exempt. After international outcry the government changed tact and withdrew its request. Activists who speak out in the DRC face grave danger. Despite the adversity, Mukwege continues to fight the good fight.

The Yazidi people and the victims of sexual violence in the DRC have all but been forgotten by the international community as efforts to address these situations remain sub-par. Perhaps the recognition of the efforts of these two humanitarians will spur more international action to address the root cause of such gross violations of human dignity.

** This article appeared in the Star Newspaper on 11 October 2018

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