In 2012, Dr. Denis Mukwege delivered a poignant speech in front of the United Nations, criticising the administration of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, bringing awareness to his life’s work through the abrasive passion of his words.
“I would have liked to begin my speech with the usual formulation ‘I have the honour and privilege of taking the floor before you,’” he began, “but I cannot [as] women . . . in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo are in dishonour.”
Shortly after the deliverance of his speech, four or five unidentified gunmen entered his home, took his children hostage, and nearly killed Dr. Mukwege. He narrowly escaped their spray of open fire. It is likely that this was an assassination attempt.
On August 3, 2014, Nadia Murad’s home village was captured by the Islamic State, and became the site of a widespread tragedy, the site of “a most terrible holocaust.” Over the course of their destructive campaign against a tiny religious minority, ISIS killed, displaced, and enslaved tens of thousands of Yazidi men, women, and children; including Nadia Murad.
After three months of torture and gruesome treatment, Murad escaped from her captors and brought to light the horror of her peoples, using the oral tradition of her Yazidi culture to tell the world of their pain, of her suffering.
Yazidi human rights activist Nadia Murad and Congolese gynaecologist Dr. Denis Mukwege are the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Winners, awarded this distinction for their activism against sexual violence. In the context of their lives — by treating patients and through personal experience — this year’s winners have been met with the use of sexual violence in armed conflict in varying degrees. In light of their experience, in light of assassination attempts and three months of torture, these activists have devoted themselves entirely to this issue. This year’s winners wholly embody the spirit of the Nobel Peace Prize, putting their personal security at risk to seek justice, combat heinous human rights abuses, and promote the application of international law.
Devoted Doctor: Denis Mukwege and the Women of the DRC
Amidst the turmoil of a violent conflict in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Dr. Denis Mukwege’s calming presence stands in stark contrast to the chaos around him; “the man who mends women” heals those ravaged most by the heinous abuses of wartime.
Dr. Mukwege’s life has been devoted to the care of female victims of gang rape and to working as leading expert in subsequent reconstructive surgery. This care for women unexpectedly contains a political dimension for Dr. Mukwege, a political dimension that was borne from on-ground experience and serendipitous discovery.
After noticing that rape and genital mutilation were not isolated incidents, Dr. Mukwege quickly came to realise that sexual violence is used as a weapon of war, as a broader strategy of the insurgent groups. In these widespread incidences, multiple women are violated at once, while the entire village is forced to watch, humiliating entire communities and taking their sense of agency away from them. Gang rape — in the context of the DRC conflict — is meant to destroy both physically and psychologically.
Having confronted this chilling truth, Dr. Mukwege took to developing a ‘holistic’ approach in treating victims, all while advocating for the condemnation of impunity and criticising the Congolese government for not extensively aiding in the prevention of mass rape. Dr. Mukwege’s treatment style involved taking into account both the surgical and psychological dimensions of womens’ suffering. In hiring psychologists and social workers to work with the women before surgery, and by aiming to integrate them back into society, he emboldened the victims to regain their sense of self, and seek justice for themselves. Through his comprehensive approach to healing, Mukwege illustrated that the pursuance of justice takes place after women feel physically, psychologically, and economically independent.
In speaking out against gang rape, Mukwege has subjected himself to considerable personal danger. Congolese conceptions of sexual violence hinge on palpable taboo, with perpetrators rarely being held accountable and women being afraid to speak up for fear of being undesirable. As a result, Mukwege’s very outward protest comes as a shock to his society, and elicits extremely strong (and often violent) responses.
Dr. Mukwege was at the operating table when he heard about winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He has dedicated his award to “all women affected by sexual violence,” and treats the prize as an explicit recognition that society has often failed in compensating women for the pain of sexual violence.
Nadia Murad as Story-teller
The Yazidi minority of Iraq straddles the Kurdish region of Iraq, the plains of Nineveh, and the peaks of Sinjar, placing extreme importance in the religious sites of their homeland and in their history of oral tradition. Their religion fuses together different religious aspects together — baptism, sacred fires, yearly feasts and daily prayers — becoming a people “charged with the palpable traces of antiquity.” The Yazidis have experienced a large number of targeted persecutions, tales of resistance that were passed down orally within their communities. In 2014, they would experience another.
The Islamic State broadly views Yazidis as devil-worshippers, and took to deliberately targeting them for extermination. In the context of this genocide — one that went broadly undocumented and unknown until recently — Nadia Murad saw her community members killed, enslaved, and herself became the subject of ISIS.
During her captivity, Murad was subject to beatings and sexual violence, sold as a sex slave and diminished entirely by her owners. Against the odds, Murad escaped in 2015 and took to spreading her story and showing the world the crimes committed against the Yazidi minority.
Murad’s account of these events is particularly critical, as it is truly one of the only ways in which the genocide would have even been noted. Because the Yazidi culture is so deeply tied into their geographic situation and because their number is so small (roughly about 500,000), there were no voices in the West that could drum up support for their cause. Additionally, the oral tradition of the culture often leaves its members illiterate. This would have made it exceptionally difficult for them to communicate their story in any implicit way, and would have made it nearly impossible for the women captured to escape.
Since her escape and her vocal account of violence, pain, and loss, Murad has been awarded the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize (2016) and has worked with Amal Clooney to bring senior ISIS members to trial for crimes against Yazidi women. She has used this prize as a way to call for the end of the persecution of minorities, for the assurance that such campaigns will fail and that its leaders will be held accountable.