Nobel prize highlights impact of sexual violence on peace and security
10 Oct 2018|

Over the weekend, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that the 2018 peace prize would be jointly awarded to Dr Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad for their efforts to combat conflict-related sexual violence. In its announcement, the committee explained that ‘a more peaceful world can only be achieved if women and their fundamental rights and security are recognised and protected in war’.

Mukwege is the director of Panzi Hospital in the outer suburbs of Bukavu in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he’s also a practising gynaecologist. The facility opened in 1999 as a general hospital for the area, but quickly became a refuge for women who had suffered egregious sexual violence at the hands of rebel forces as well as the national armed forces.

While Mukwege and his surgical team treat the physical wounds from this violence, overall the hospital takes a holistic approach to the problems faced by its patients. They are given access to legal assistance as well as income-generation and training opportunities to help reduce the inequality that allows sexual violence to perpetuate. Mukwege has been an outspoken advocate for putting an end to conflict-related sexual violence and has campaigned globally to bring attention to the issue, while calling for an end to impunity.

When Islamic State swept through the region of Sinjar in northern Iraq in 2014, they kidnapped thousands of Yazidi women and girls and sold them into sexual slavery, transporting them across occupied Iraq and Syria. Nadia Murad was one of those young women. She was sold into sexual slavery in Mosul where she was beaten, tortured and gang-raped for a month before escaping her captors.

Murad has campaigned tirelessly for justice for what women and girls like her, and the Yazidi community, have experienced at the hands of Islamic State. Last year, she published a book titled The last girl, because she wants to be the last girl to experience such violence and deprivation. By standing up in the world, and telling her story, she has put a very human face to the horrors that are perpetrated against women and girls in times of war.

In choosing these two individuals as recipients for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has further highlighted the importance of addressing sexual violence to achieving international peace and security. Sexual violence is an indicator of increasing armed violence, a driver of armed conflict, and a barrier to peace and reconciliation.

For example, research by Jacqui True and Sara Davies has shown that in Myanmar, from 1998 to 2016, reports of sexual violence increased a year before a spike in armed conflict. Sexual violence has long been used as a weapon of war in Myanmar and has been used as a tool of genocide in the recent violence against Rohingya Muslims in the northwest of the country.

Kidnapping, trafficking and sexual slavery are sources of finance and recruitment for extremist groups all over the world. Indeed, it is estimated Islamic State made tens of millions of dollars annually in the slave market. In 2016, the UN Security Council passed resolution 2331 condemning human trafficking in areas of armed conflict, saying that it can ‘exacerbate conflict and foster insecurity and instability’ and drawing attention to the trafficking perpetrated by Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda and the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Broadly speaking, the root cause of sexual violence is gender inequality. The World Health Organization describes sexual violence as an act of power and control. We see time and again, all over the world, that it is the victim who is shamed by this type of violence, not the perpetrator. In countries with gender inequality as vast as those experiencing armed conflict, there’s an extreme stigma associated with being a victim. In this way, sexual violence shreds the fabric of society, destroying the human capital that is needed to bring peace, reconciliation and reconstruction to countries affected by war.

Resolution 1325 is the one that always gets mentioned, but 2018 marks 10 years since the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1820, the second resolution in the suite passed on women, peace and security. UNSCR 1820 was the first to focus on conflict-related sexual violence. In it, the Security Council stressed that ‘sexual violence, when used or commissioned as a tactic of war in order to deliberately target civilians or as a part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilian populations, can significantly exacerbate situations of armed conflict and may impede the restoration of international peace and security’. It also reiterated the provisions of the Rome Statute, reminding the international community that ‘rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide’.

Sexual violence is not an inevitable by-product of war. It is an ongoing threat to international peace and security. It is a crime recognised under international law and in the legislation of countries across the globe. Hopefully, the recognition from the Nobel Peace Prize will amplify efforts to change the policy and practice of international peace and security organisations so they deal with conflict-related sexual violence better, and spur national judicial systems to end impunity for these heinous crimes.