Nobel Peace Prize awarded to advocates against sexual assault and rape

In a moment of growing awareness to gender based violence, the recipients of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize are recognized for their work documenting, treating, and exposing the use of rape during conflicts in the Congo and Iraq. 

Nerijus Adomaitis/Reuters
Drawings of the Nobel Peace Prize winners Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad are displayed in Oslo, Norway October 5, 2018.

A Congolese doctor who treats rape victims and an Iraqi woman who speaks out for those – like herself – who were raped and tortured by the Islamic State group won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for their work to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad "have made a crucial contribution to focusing attention on, and combating, such war crimes," the Norwegian Nobel Committee said. "Denis Mukwege is the helper who has devoted his life to defending these victims. Nadia Murad is the witness who tells of the abuses perpetrated against herself and others."

Mr. Mukwege founded a hospital in eastern Congo's Bukavu region and has treated thousands of women, many of whom were victims of gang rape in the central African nation that has been wracked by conflict for decades. Armed men tried to kill him in 2012, forcing him to temporarily leave the country.

At 19, Murad was one of an estimated 3,000 Yazidi girls and women kidnapped in 2014 by IS militants in Iraq and sold into sex slavery. She was raped, beaten, and tortured before managing to escape after three months. After getting treatment in Germany, she then spoke to the world about the horrors still being faced by her religious minority. At 23, she was named the United Nation's first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking.

Both honorees are the first from their countries – Congo and Iraq – to receive a Nobel Prize and will split the award, which is worth 9 million Swedish kronor ($1.01 million).

The Nobel Peace award comes amid a heightened attention to the sexual abuse of women – in war, in the workplace and in society – that has been highlighted by the "#MeToo" movement.

"We want to send a message that women who constitute half the population in those communities actually are used as weapons and that they need protection, and that the perpetrators have to be prosecuted and held responsible," said Berit Reiss-Andersen, chairwoman of the Norwegian committee.

"MeToo and war crimes is not quite the same thing, but they do, however, have in common that it is important to see the suffering of women," said Ms. Reiss-Andersen.

Mukwege, a gynecological surgeon, said he was nearing the end of his second surgery of the day Friday when he heard people crying in the hospital. They had heard about him winning the peace prize.

"I can see in the faces of many women how they are happy to be recognized. This is really so touching," he said in a brief telephone interview with the Nobel Prize organization.

Mobile phone footage of the scene in Congo showed a smiling Mukwege jostled by dancing, ululating medical colleagues in scrubs. "Hallelujah!" one man cried as women wiped their eyes. Mukwege tried to address the crowd in the hospital's courtyard but was drowned out by cheering and song.

Eastern Congo has seen more than two decades of conflict among armed groups that either sought to unseat presidents or simply grab control of a piece of the country's vast mineral wealth.

"The importance of Dr. Mukwege's enduring, dedicated and selfless efforts in this field cannot be overstated. He has repeatedly condemned impunity for mass rape and criticized the Congolese government and other countries for not doing enough to stop the use of sexual violence against women as a strategy and weapon of war," the Nobel committee said.

Ms. Murad's book, "The Last Girl," tells of her captivity, the loss of her family, and her eventual escape.

The Yazidis are an ancient religious minority, falsely branded as devil-worshippers by Sunni Muslim extremists. IS, adopting a radical interpretation of ancient Islamic texts, declared that Yazidi women and even young girls could be taken as sex slaves.

Iraqi President Bahram Saleh praised the award for Murad, saying on Twitter that it was an "honor for all Iraqis who fought terrorism and bigotry."

Congo's government congratulated Mukwege while acknowledging that their relations with him have been strained. Government spokesman Lambert Mende told The Associated Press that Mukwege did "remarkable" work, though he claimed the laureate tended to politicize it.

"[Still] we salute that a colleague is recognized," he said.

"I am proud to be Congolese," said the country's top opposition leader, Felix Tshisekedi, in a Twitter post. "Good done for others always ends up being rewarded."

Last year's Peace Prize winner was the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

In other Nobel prizes this year, the medicine prize went Monday to James Allison of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University, whose discoveries helped cancer doctors fight many advanced-stage tumors and save an "untold" numbers of lives.

Scientists from the United States, Canada, and France shared the physics prize Tuesday for revolutionizing the use of lasers in research.

On Wednesday, three researchers who "harnessed the power of evolution" to produce enzymes and antibodies that have led to a new best-selling drug won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

The winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, honoring Alfred Nobel, the founder of the five Nobel Prizes, will be revealed on Monday.

No Nobel literature prize will be awarded this year due to a sex abuse scandal at the Swedish Academy, which chooses the winner. The academy plans to announce both the 2018 and the 2019 winner next year – although the head of the Nobel Foundation has said the body must fix its tarnished reputation first.

The man at the center of the Swedish Academy scandal, Jean-Claude Arnault, a major cultural figure in Sweden, was sentenced Monday to two years in prison for rape.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Additional reporting by Cara Anna in Johannesburg, Dave Bryan in Cairo, Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal.

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