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The Nobel Peace Prize 2018 winners brought attention to sexual abuse in conflicts

The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Oct. 5 to two figures who have worked to bring attention to ending sexual violence in armed conflicts. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

At a time of growing global awareness about injustices against women, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to two people who have brought attention to the most extreme forms of violence they can face: a Congolese surgeon who treats victims of wartime rape and an activist who was a sexual slave of the Islamic State.

In recognizing Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, the Norwegian Nobel Committee for the first time has devoted its award to the abuse of women in conflict zones — what some experts say has been an underappreciated aspect of war.

Mukwege has treated grievous injuries in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that one U.N. official once called the rape capital of the world. Murad is among thousands of Iraqi Yazidis who have been treated as sexual property by the Islamic State, and since her escape she has become perhaps the most outspoken among them, campaigning to bring the militants to justice for war crimes.

Mukwege, 63, has long been mentioned as a leading contender for the award, and Murad, 25, is the second-youngest winner. What they have in common is that both have lived in parts of the world where it is particularly dangerous to be a woman.

“We want to send out a message of awareness that women, who constitute half of the population in most communities, actually are used as a weapon of war — and that they need protection,” said Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

Protecting women and holding perpetrators accountable is a “prerequisite for lasting peace,” she added.

Why it took the world so long to call rape during conflicts a war crime

The Nobel decision appeared to nod toward a broader global theme about the treatment of women and their willingness to speak out about inequities. The newfound attention to sexual harassment and sexual assault has upended the entertainment and political worlds, and earlier this year the Nobel Prize in literature was postponed because of a sexual abuse scandal affecting the Nobel organization.

Reiss-Andersen said that war crimes and the #MeToo movement are “not the same thing,” but that it is important that “women leave the concept of shame and speak up.”

The Nobel decision is also an affirmation of a widening — and, some say, belated — awareness about how soldiers use violence against women as a weapon of war, sometimes to instill fear or keep control, sometimes for reasons of pure brutality.

Such sexual violence has typified many major conflicts of the last several decades, from Rwanda to the Balkans, and now most notably in the territory controlled by the Islamic State, whose organization maintains formal rules on how sexual slaves can be traded and used.

In 2008, the United Nations formally recognized gang rape during conflicts as a war crime, and researchers say that Mukwege and Murad have become two of the most prominent voices in advocating for justice against perpetrators.

“A more peaceful world can only be achieved if women and their fundamental rights and security are recognized and protected in war,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in its citation.

One adviser said Murad was brought to tears when she learned Friday of the news. Mukwege found out he was the co-winner of the award while he was at the operating table.

Murad was living in northern Iraq when in 2014 Islamic State fighters set on her village, killing several hundred people — burying them in mass graves — and abducting many young women. While held captive by the Islamic State, Murad was handed off among the militants and repeatedly raped. She escaped after three months with the help of a Sunni family. In 2016, she was named a U.N. goodwill ambassador on the issue of survivors of human trafficking.

Murad is the second-youngest person to win a Nobel Peace Prize, after Malala Yousafzai, who in 2014 won the prize at age 17.

In a book she wrote about her experiences, Murad called her captivity “a slow, painful death — of the body and the soul.”

Murad has since traveled around the world campaigning for the documentation of war crimes and the rescue of Yazidis still held by Islamic State fighters. In 2016, then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the Islamic State had been responsible for “genocide” against Yazidis and several other groups living under its control.

“This is not something I chose,” Murad told The Washington Post in an interview last year. “Somebody had to tell these stories. It’s not easy.”

Mukwege is the son of a preacher who traveled around eastern Congo in the years before war convulsed the region, taking millions of lives. But even before the wars, health care was grim. Horrified by the number of childbirth complications parishioners asked his father to pray over, he became determined to enter the medical field, eventually traveling to France to specialize in gynecology.

He founded Panzi Hospital in 1999, just as eastern Congo was overtaken by a new wave of violence that became infamous for its brutality, particularly toward women. Militias from Congo, Rwanda and Uganda tore across eastern Congo for the better part of a decade, raping and pillaging.

Panzi Hospital was where tens of thousands of rape victims went for treatment, some showing up naked, others having already been to the hospital after previous rapes. Mukwege treated countless victims, often working 18-hour days. He stopped for a period of only 2 ½ months, after he narrowly survived an assassination attempt and sought refuge in France.

Mukwege has been a staunch critic of Congo’s government, which he has called out for impunity and human rights abuses. It has yet to comment on Mukwege’s Nobel Prize.

“We are thrilled to see our dear friend and partner honored for his fearless work helping tens of thousands of Congolese girls and women who have been abused during the conflict in their country,” said Donna McKay, the executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, an advocacy group that works in Panzi Hospital. “Dr. Mukwege is not only an extraordinary physician but a courageous human rights leader who perfectly embodies the critical role that medical professionals play in witnessing abuse and speaking out against injustice.”

Max Bearak in Nairobi, Loveday Morris in Jerusalem and Anne-Marie O’Connor in London contributed to this report.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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