OSLO, NORWAY (ASSOCIATED PRESS) — An Iraqi woman who became a global advocate for victims after being raped and tortured by Islamic State militants and a Congolese surgeon who has treated countless rape victims in his war-torn nation won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for fighting to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Dr. Denis Mukwege was in surgery — his second operation of the day — at the hospital that he founded in 1999 in Congo’s eastern Bukavu region when the announcement came Friday that he and Nadia Murad had won the prestigious prize. He learned of it because he heard colleagues and patients crying at the news.
The 63-year-old gynecological surgeon said for nearly 20 years he has witnessed war crimes “against women, teenage girls, small girls, babies.”
“Dear survivors around the world, I want to tell you that through this prize the world is listening to you and refuses indifference,” he said. “We hope that the world will no longer delay taking action in your favor, with force and determination, because the survival of humanity depends on you. It’s you women who carry humanity.”
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. At 19, she was raped, beaten and tortured before managing to escape after three months. After getting treatment in Germany, she chose to speak to the world about the horrors faced by Yazidi women, regardless of the stigma in her culture surrounding rape.
At 23, she was named the U.N.’s first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking.
This year’s peace prize announcement 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 Nobel 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,” she said.
Rights advocates were thrilled with the choice of this year’s winners.
“Dr. Mukwege brings smiles and helps repair women from the barbaric acts of men in Congo,” said Solange Furaha Lwashiga, a Congolese women’s activist.
“We’re talking (about) two ordinary citizens, at one level, who show that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. And they’ve shown a kind of political will that we’re not seeing in our political leaders right now to make a difference,” said Kumi Naidoo, head of Amnesty International.
Many of the women treated by Mukwege 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.
“This particular type of war crime has been more invisible, because the victims have such a stigma and no one is willing to speak up on their behalf,” Reiss-Andersen told The Associated Press.
Both honorees are the first from their countries to receive a Nobel Prize and will split the award, which is worth 9 million Swedish kronor ($1.01 million).
After the announcement, mobile phone footage showed a smiling Mukwege jostled by dancing, ululating medical colleagues in scrubs in the hospital’s courtyard.
Eastern Congo has seen more than two decades of conflict among armed groups that either sought to unseat presidents or simply grab control of some the central African nation’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.
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.”
In the United States, President Donald Trump didn’t comment on the Peace Prize but his new ambassador to Congo did.
U.S. Ambassador Mike Hammer said in a Twitter post: “Congratulations Dr. Denis Mukwege! Looking forward to visiting Panzi Hospital and seeing firsthand your remarkable work against sexual violence and in support of survivors.”
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, meanwhile, tweeted a link to the Nobel announcement, commenting that “the timing of this topic is extraordinary as we fight for the end of #ViolenceAgainstWomen.”
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 advanced-stage tumors.
Scientists from the United States, Canada and France shared the physics prize Tuesday for revolutionizing the use of lasers in research while three researchers who “harnessed the power of evolution” to produce enzymes and antibodies won the Nobel Chemistry Prize on Wednesday.
Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo in Canada became only the third woman to win a physics Nobel, while Frances Arnold was only the fifth woman to win a chemistry Nobel since the prizes were first handed out in 1901.
The winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences 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 — but 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, was sentenced Monday to two years in prison for rape.
Heintz reported from Moscow. Cara Anna in Johannesburg, Dave Bryan in Cairo, Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal, contributed.