WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Nadia Murad, a human-rights activist from Iraq’s Yazidi minority, and to Denis Mukwege, a Congolese physician, for their fight against sexual violence as a weapon of war.
On the one-year anniversary of the reporting that sparked the #MeToo movement, the committee’s recognition of the power of survivors’ voices is welcome. However, as former policy officials who have worked to end sexual violence in conflict, we wonder: what took so long?
Sexual violence in war is not new. During the Rwandan genocide, 250,000 to 500,000 women were raped in three months. More recently, widespread sexual violence has been documented in Liberia, Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria and elsewhere. This atrocity can no longer be accepted as mere collateral of war but must be addressed for what it is — a strategic weapon of war.
Today, that recognition is beginning to happen. A growing evidence-based case illustrates how sexual violence influences peace and security.
The International Committee for the Red Cross has recorded the harm done by sexual violence to a community’s ability to heal from conflict. A Council on Foreign Relations study shows that wartime rape undermines post-conflict stability by fueling displacement and weakening governance. Researchers have found a “robust” link between women’s physical security and whether countries are themselves secure and peaceful, a connection that was highlighted in the Women, Peace and Security Index, produced by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the Peace Research Institute Oslo.
As Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general, once remarked, “No policy is more important in preventing conflict, or in achieving reconciliation after a conflict has ended” than empowering women and girls.
The massive numbers involved in cases of sexual violence in wars sometimes make us lose sight of the real people who are irrevocably affected by such abuse. Murad and Mukwege, in different ways, live the horrors of modern conflict. In 2014, the Islamic State kidnapped Murad, subjecting her, with thousands of other Yazidi women, to systematic rape. Mukwege, the founder of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has treated tens of thousands of rape victims for years.
Both Murad and Mukwege have borne great personal risks to offer their first-hand accounts and advocate for the protection and rehabilitation of survivors and for ending impunity. Incredibly, both Murad and Mukwege have survived death threats and persevered in their demand for justice to female survivors.
Upon receiving news of the award, Mukwege said that “[t]his award will have real meaning only if it helps mobilize people to change the situation of victims in areas of armed conflict.”
We recommend six steps to compel change.
First, pursue justice. Perpetrators must be prosecuted. Both the United Nations Security Council and international treaties recognize that sexual violence used as a weapon of war is a crime against humanity, a war crime and can constitute genocide. Murad’s own response to the Nobel Peace Prize emphasized the genocidal character of the sexual violence she and her fellow Yazidis experienced by the Islamic State.
Second, enable access to justice. In Bosnia, most cases of sexual violence were never punished because women lacked sufficient access to legal institutions. Women are still tormented by what happened to them while their perpetrators are often viewed as upstanding citizens.
Third, do not ignore the value of data. Local authorities, with international assistance, must collect data and investigate reports of sexual violence to prosecute cases and ensure justice when hostilities end.
Fourth, offer holistic care. Survivors of sexual abuse need medical care, as well as social and psychological support. They also need to have their lives made whole. As a survivor in the Congo said, “We want to go from our pain to power.” When asked what she meant by “power,” she said, the desire to have a normal life and a job.
Fifth, carry out UN Security Council Resolution 1325 effectively. The resolution links women’s agency to peace and security and affirms the need for accountability and protection from sexual violence. The UN should embrace sanctions regimes to better address sexual violence in conflict. There must be zero tolerance for sexual abuse among peacekeepers. More broadly, the UN should consult with and carry out the proposals of its special envoy for sexual violence in conflict, Pramila Patten, whose office has expertise in this area.
Sixth, address sexual violence in peace agreements and ensure that women actively participate in negotiations when deals are reached. In the US, vigorously implement the Women, Peace and Security Act of 2017, which requires the government to support this approach.
The Nobel Committee’s decision to honor two courageous humanitarians rightly spotlights the endless brutality of sexual violence in conflict. Its decision not only condemns sexual violence but understands how it destroys peace and requires justice.