Dashing myths about wartime rape

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to two global activists against the use of rape as a tool of war, will add to a quarter century of change aimed at relegating such sexual violence to history.

Denis Mukwege (left), a doctor in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman from Iraq, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.

For 74 years, a nuclear weapon has not been used in war. Chemical weapons, once readily deployed in early-20th-century wars, are now rarely used. Land mines, too, have generally become condemned and not installed in battlefields.

It is now time to curb – with an expectation to end – another “weapon” that also targets innocent civilians in a conflict: mass rape.

Since 1993, when the United Nations launched a campaign to curb violence against women, the world has steadily come to recognize that wartime rape is not inevitable. In 2012, Britain led a global effort to challenge assumptions about sexual violence during wartime. And the #MeToo movement has lately added to such efforts.

Now that momentum could gain even more speed. On Friday the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two current campaigners against sexual violence in conflicts.

One is a woman, Nadia Murad, who is a former captive of the Islamic State. After overcoming the shame of revealing that she was repeatedly raped, she has spoken on behalf of her religious minority in Iraq, the Yazidi, and the need for women who have been raped to speak out. Her courage has emboldened many survivors to end their silence in order to reduce the culture of impunity and gender inequality that fuels the cycle of abuse.

The other is a man, Denis Mukwege, a gynecological surgeon who treats rape victims in the war zone of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. He has also spoken worldwide – despite threats to him and his family – on ways to end rape as a strategy of war.

The key message of these moral activists is that the world must change the common notion that wartime rape is unavoidable. “I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine,” wrote Ms. Murad in her autobiography, “The Last Girl.”

Men are essential to this cause, a point reflected in the peace prize being shared with a man. In a few African countries, many men with a history of violence against women during a conflict have been trained to speak to other men about their change of heart.

“Women’s bodies have always been used as battlefields,” says Dr. Helen Durham, director of international law and policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross. “But we need to be clear that sexual violence in war is not something inevitable. It is preventable and we all need to work together to strengthen efforts in prosecution, prevention, and in finding practical solutions to help those affected.”

Today’s heroes of peace can include those who have lifted the stigma of wartime rape and led others to challenge its use as a weapon. Some weapons are best left to the barbarous past in order to embrace a future based on the protection of the innocent.

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