The Helper and the Witness

Nobel Peace Prize winners stand up against wartime sexual violence

by Jacob Oedy

Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege and Iraqi activist Nadia Murad received the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 5 as a joint recognition of their fight against the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

“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,” the Nobel Committee stated in the announcement.

Political science professor Dr. Glenn Duerr shared some insights into the work and history of the two recipients.

“Mukwege is a particularly interesting character because he is a pentecostal minister as well as a gynecologist, and a very well-regarded one,” Duerr said. “[He’s also] someone who has paid personal penalties … He was almost assassinated; he had difficulty coming back to his country.”

Nobel Prize Winner Nadia Murad [Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons]

Mukwege, the son of a pentecostal preacher, has been treating the victims of sexual violence for decades following his establishment of the Panzi Hospital on the east side of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Over the course of his career, he has performed operations on thousands of men and women, collateral damage in the endless civil wars and inter-factional conflicts that have rocked his country. The gynecologist, often referred to as “Doctor Miracle,” works tirelessly to care for those who have suffered unspeakable physical and psychological pain.

“It’s often reported that he does 10 surgeries a day, works 18 hours, and just tries to be the hands and feet of Christ in a situation that’s very brutal and very few of us can actually imagine,” Duerr said.

While he is beloved by the countless people he has healed, Mukwege’s work almost cost him his life. In October of 2012, four gunmen broke into the doctor’s home in Bukavu. Mukwege’s bodyguard prevented the assailants from killing the doctor at the cost of his own life, according to a 2013 New York Times article. Mukwege fled to Belgium with his family following the attempt on his life.

While Mukwege’s attackers were never caught or identified, the New York Times article suggests that many suspect the Congolese government orchestrated the attack. The attempt on his life occurred shortly after he criticized his government’s failure to prevent rape from running rampant across the country. Duerr explained that the Congolese government, located on the western side of the country, is too weak and ineffectual to manage the eastern portion of the nation where Mukwege works.

“This is the wild west or, in Congolese terms, the wild east,” Duerr said, pointing out Mukwege’s home on a map.

Despite his brush with death, Mukwege returned to his hospital a few months later to relentlessly continue his work. Mukwege’s treatment of abused women extends past physical healing and includes a psychological recovery center where victims can recapture their dignity.

“He set a real standard on compassion and care,” Duerr said.

Nobel Prize Winner Denis Mukwege [Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons]

Nadia Murad’s battle to bring justice for victims of wartime sexual violence is no less remarkable, and even more personal. In 2014, ISIS invaders laid siege to Murad’s village in Iraq as part of their ongoing persecution of the Yazidi community.

Duerr explained that the Yazidi are a religious minority predating both Islam and Zoroastrianism, the mystic religion of ancient Persia. Their unique culture and beliefs landed them in the crosshairs of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The attack on her home cost hundreds of lives, including six of her brothers and her mother.

Murad and thousands of other Yazidi women suffered sexual atrocities at the hands of their captors. According to BBC News, Murad endured months of abuse as a sex slave before escaping to a Yazidi refugee camp and eventually making her way to Germany.

After regaining her freedom, Nadia began boldly retelling her story and the suffering of her people to gatherings and delegations around the world. She also penned an award-winning autobiography titled The Last Girl.

“She’s been extremely brave,” Duerr said. “She lived through atrocities that we cannot fathom very well in the United States.”

Murad is one of countless victims in a country whose primary religious text fails to dignify or protect the rights of women, according to social work professor Melissa Brown.

“The Quran influences much of social policy in Iraq and not only explains rape of women to be permissible, but actually promotes rape of captive women,” explained Brown. “[It] goes so far as to say that as long as a woman isn’t pregnant, her marriage will be annulled once she is taken captive.”

Murad’s work would be considered radical by much of the country she comes from.

“I think it’s incredible for Nadia not only to go up against a culture, but against teaching from a religious book that the people hold sacred.” Brown said. “That really puts her at a very high risk of persecution … She’s challenging a fundamental or core belief that they have about women.”

Both professors encouraged Cedarville students to look for ways to further the fight against sexual violence.

“There are many, many needs,” said Brown. “Certainly, physical needs with sexual violence, and that’s where nurses, physicians’ assistants, and pharmacists can play a role. Social workers and psychologists certainly can help. Even our Bible majors who are working towards a biblical counseling degree, they play a role in dealing with trauma.”

Perhaps the background of Cedarville students will allow them to offer a special kind of recovery, Brown continued.

“I do think that Cedarville students have an additional opportunity,” Brown said. “Being firm believers, we can not only address the psychological and physical needs of victims of sexual violence, but we also can bring the most powerful healing, which is restoration and healing spiritually.”

While it may be easy to ignore conflicts that seem so far away from American life, Duerr encourages students to stay informed.

“Watch conflicts more closely,” Duerr said. “See situations like this and try to have some political input. The information is the key really. Once you know the information it will compel you to act.”

Jacob Oedy is a freshman journalism major and a staff writer for off-campus news and arts and entertainment. He enjoys creative writing, investigating, and hanging out with the best hall on campus, Brock 3 East.

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