The Nobel Peace Prize 2018 And Its Focus On Sexual Violence And Women’s Rights

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded nearly 100 times since its creation in 1901; to 89 men, 17 women and 24 organisations. The Norwegian Nobel Committee is tasked with celebrating peaceful means; choosing from hundreds of nominations ranging from disarmament, democracy, human rights, climate change, and threats to the environment. This year, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege were announced as joint winners of the Nobel Peace Prize Award 2018. The Committee declared they were chosen for their “efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” As the awards progress through time, the pair exemplify a turn in international focus in 2018; a spotlight on gender-based and sexual violence including rape, human trafficking, and female genital mutilation (FGM). 

Denis Mukwege is a gynecologist from the Democratic Republic of Congo and has worked tirelessly in activism and specialising in holistic healing for victims of sexual violence. He has gone so far as to risk his life for the cause; surviving an assassination attempt where his security guard was killed at gunpoint. He escaped with his life and sought refuge in Belgium, but despite the threat to his life returned to his work in Congo where he has helped more than 50,000 victims of sexual violence. 

Nadia Murad was abducted by Isis in her village in Northern Iraq during the Yazidi genocide in 2014. She was held against her will for three months as a sex slave. Her mother and six brothers were killed in the attack with an estimated 7,000 women and children captured in the weeks that followed. Many victims remain trapped today, destined for sex slavery or trained as child soldiers. An estimated 80% of Yazidi people continue to live in camps for internally displaced persons and hundreds of women and children remain in captivity. She revealed that her two burdens are memories and responsibility; memories of rape and the murder of her family, and the responsibility to ensure no women suffered like she did.

Nadia’s book “The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State” explains that rape is not a technique only used by ISIS, but that it has been used throughout history as a weapon of war. UNICEF disclosed that women are most vulnerable in wartime as self-protection is forced upon them when complying with governments and military authorities. Women are seen as the pillar of societies and in times of war rape is used as an attack on both the victim and entire groups; intended to humiliate, shame, and degrade. They report that women and children make up 80% of those displaced in war today; many becoming victims of forced prostitution and human trafficking.

The first conviction in an international court that classified rape as a crime against humanity was in 2001 after atrocities committed in Bosnia and Yugoslavia. Dragoljub Kunarac was charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for both personally committing crimes and also allowing his subordinates to commit them. His case introduced an integral precedent to the prosecution of criminals in these circumstances. The Court stated that they believed the Rome Treaty of 1998 covered sexual violence, while also having to go back as early as 1863 with the ‘Lieber Instructions’ to find legislation prohibiting rape in times of war.

The World Health Assembly passed a resolution in 2008 emphasising the need for action in all sectors to eliminate FGM, to which the international community has responded considerably. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports more than 200 million girls and women alive today are victims of FGM. The Department for International Development estimates that 87% of women aged 15-49 have undergone FGM solely in Sudan. The UK government has worked specifically with governments, religious leaders, and hospitals to dispel FGM as a religious practice and provide care to victims. These projects have resulted in six out of 18 states in Sudan passing legislation against FGM and an estimated 18% reduction in social acceptance of the practice in the last two years. Gambia, Nigeria, and Mauritania have made FGM illegal with further states moving to do the same. 

The Nobel Committee’s focus on gender-based violence follows increased international support for the cause; Canada announced $3million in funding to end FGM on the ‘International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation’ this year and the United Kingdom pledged a huge £50million in November to end FGM across Africa by 2030. Canada has also recently committed $650 million to improving domestic sexual and reproductive health development in Africa. Miss Murad and Mr. Mukwege’s appointment as Nobel Peace Prize Award winners resulted in the EU contributing €5 million to initiatives supporting their causes. There have also been multiple declarations and commitments made by nations to improving the safety of women around the globe. 

Violence against women is not only a problem in Africa, and not only in wartime, but occurs globally in many circumstances. The Thomson Reuters Foundation released its survey findings on The World’s 10 Most Dangerous Countries for Women in June this year. The survey found that India increased in the ratings to take the #1 spot, up from fourth in 2011. The United States also featured highly on the ratings at 10th place; placing third equal in ‘Sexual Violence’, alongside Syria. There is a need for work to be done on all levels and in all nations.

The Nobel Committee has succeeded in raising awareness by celebrating these two incredible people. Nadia and Denis have risked their lives in determination to make the world a better place. It is great to see the international community supporting these causes, but there is always more to be done. Theodor Meron rightly expressed disappointment in his book ‘Rape As A Crime Under International Humanitarian Law‘ that “international focus on neglected areas of law only occurs after calamitous circumstances”. There is a need for leaders to act in prevention of these atrocities, not as a reaction. World leaders made a promise to cease all forms of discrimination and violence against women by 2030, and the acknowledgement of Nadia and Denis provides hope that we are on the right path.