How the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winners have worked to end sexual violence as a weapon of war

2018 Nobel Peace Prize winners Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege.
2018 Nobel Peace Prize winners Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege.
Image: Reuters Photographers
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The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, and Nadia Murad, a Yazidi human rights activist from Iraq, for their work toward ending the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

Though they share the same cause, the two recipients came to their work in remarkably different ways. Murad, who is the UN’s Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking, was kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 at the age of 21, surviving rape and torture at the hands of militants before finally escaping. After her ordeal, she testified about her experience as well as the broader oppression of the Yazidi minority group in Iraq in front of the UN Security Council, demonstrating what the Nobel committee called “uncommon courage in recounting her own suffering”.

As an activist for refugee and women’s rights, she went on to found Nadia’s Initiative, which was instrumental in persuading the UN Security Council to pass a resolution opening an investigation into the war crimes systematically committed against the Yazidi people by ISIS, as well as prompting several states and commissions to recognize crimes against the Yazidi people as genocide. She is the author of the memoir The Last Girl, published in November 2017.

As the Nobel Prize committee noted, “Nadia Murad is one of an estimated 3,000 Yazidi girls and women who were victims of rape and other abuses by the IS army. The abuses were systematic and part of a military strategy. They served as a weapon in the fight against Yazidis and other religious minorities.”

Denis Mukwege has devoted his career to treating tens of thousands of victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as openly criticizing governments for not doing enough to prevent sexual violence from being used as a strategy of war. Sexual war crimes are horrifically common in DRC, with years of war and chronic conflict leading to pathologized sexual violence and mutilation, acted out predominately on women.

For his tireless work, Dr Mukwege earned the moniker “the man who mends women,” which served as the title for a 2016 documentary about this work. The Nobel committee called Mukwege the “the foremost, most unifying symbol both nationally and internationally of the struggle to end sexual violence in war and armed conflict.”

The award comes at a time when there is great international focus on sexual violence against women. Though there was some speculation that the award might go to Donald Trump and/or Kim Jong-un for their unconventional approach to decreasing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the choice to award Murad and Mukwege is more reflective of the cultural moment.