Nobel Peace Prize 2019 Highlights Sexual Violence and Those Who Fight It

Today’s announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize winners for 2019 made my day, not only because it is extremely well deserved, but also because it brings attention to a sadly relevant problem. As the BBC reports:

The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize has gone to campaigners against rape in warfare, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege.

Ms Murad is an Iraqi Yazidi who was tortured and raped by Islamic State militants and later became the face of a campaign to free the Yazidi people.

Dr Mukwege is a Congolese gynaecologist who, along with his colleagues, has treated tens of thousands of victims.

Some 331 individuals and organisations were nominated for the prestigious peace award this year.

The winners announced in the Norwegian capital Oslo on Friday won the award for their “efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war”, Berit Reiss-Andersen, the Nobel committee chair, said.

The pair both made a “crucial contribution to focusing attention on, and combating, such war crimes”, Ms Reiss-Andersen added.

I learned about Murad years ago, when Islamic State suddenly swept through Iraq and Syria, stunning the world with its rise, brutality, and genocidal aims.  However, I had not appreciated how she persevered against the unfathomable suffering she endured, using it as a source of strength to motivate her activism:

Ms Murad did not just lose her mother in the genocide. She endured three months as a sex slave at the hands of IS militants. She was bought and sold several times and subjected to sexual and physical abuse during her captivity.

After escaping, she became an activist for the Yazidi people, campaigning to help put an end to human trafficking and calling on the world to take a tougher line on rape as a weapon of war.

Ms Murad described her escape in a BBC interview in 2016, detailing how the women who were held captive were treated by IS.

She was awarded the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize by the Council of Europe in 2016 and called for an international court to judge crimes committed by IS in her acceptance speech in Strasbourg.

Ms Murad, the first Iraqi to win the award, was named the UN’s first goodwill ambassador for survivors of human trafficking later that year.

I am eager to learn more about this incredible woman, in particular through a documentary about her life and activism highlighted by the LA Times:

There are miles of mass graves, millions of refugees. Only some are heard. But Murad, whose power comes from a brokenness inside, will not let her people in northern Iraq be forgotten.

She is a reluctant heroine, a young woman of unflinching conviction and rustic grace. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — sharing it with Denis Mukwege, a Congolese doctor — on Friday for her work to end sexual violence in war zones. Murad was kidnapped and made a sex slave when Islamic State fighters overran Yazidi villages and towns in Iraq in 2014. She escaped months later and made it to Europe.

The new documentary, “On Her Shoulders,” which opens in Los Angeles on Oct. 24, is an evocative portrait of this unwitting activist who lost family, endured rape and torture and became the eloquent if at times overwhelmed voice of 400,000 Yazidis, a religious minority, driven from their homes. Hers was the poetry of witness in a land of atrocity, a tale carried by a seamstress to the world’s capitals.

Directed by Alexandria Bombach, the film follows Murad for three months as she calls attention to her people’s plight, traveling from Berlin to New York to Canada. Her mother and brothers had been killed; at least 3,200 women and girls remained in captivity. This was her story, unfolded in weary persistence to politicians and ambassadors, many of whom praised and photographed her but could do little to stop the carnage.

The disquieting truth of “On Her Shoulders” is Murad’s gradual realization — as if layers of a bitter fruit exposed — that a village girl, even one with Amal Clooney as her lawyer, cannot quickly budge the world’s bureaucracy and cruel political designs. This point is crystallized when she is told that it will be a decade before destroyed Yazidi towns are rebuilt and refuges return home, a time when her village will be a place of no men and widows dressed in black. She cannot fathom this.

An incredible human being who is a testament to the courage and tenacity of oppressed peoples everywhere.

Dr. Mukwege is equally inspiring, prompting me to write a blog about him over four years ago, when he was still being touted as a potential prize recipient. I invite you to read more about his life and work, and to donate to his medical foundation (which now proudly displays a banner announcing his Nobel Peace Prize win).

Dr. Mukwege founded Panzi Hospital in his native town of Bukavu in 1999, just one year after the start of the Second Congo War, Africa’s deadliest conflict, and one in which the incidence of gang rape was systemic. Located near the heart of the conflict zone, the hospital was strained by increased demand for both general medical services and gynecological surgery; Dr. Mukwege remains the facility’s only gynecologist, and one of only two doctors in all of eastern Congo specializing in reconstructive surgery.

Over the past 16 years, the hospital has treated over 30,000 women, many of them repeat visitors; many patients arrive right after being gang-raped, “sometimes naked, usually bleeding and leaking urine and faeces from torn vaginas” according to Dr. Mukwege’s own horrific testimony. Due to the still-high demand for his service, he often performs up to 10 surgeries a day during his 18-hour shifts (though the war ended in 2003, lingering and related conflicts continue).

His diligent and desperately needed work would be more than enough, but he has also used his firsthand experience to bring attention to this crisis and call for an end to the rampant rape that persists, often to dehumanize victims and traumatize families. According to the BBC, he saw the award as an opportunity to show rape survivors that “they are not alone”.

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Whenever I find myself losing faith in humanity, I will just think of these two and the millions of others like them.

Hero Highlight: Kailash Stayarthi

As many readers know, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize rightly went to Malala Yousafzai, who at 17 is the youngest Nobel laureate in history, for her courageous advocacy of women’s rights to education and equal opportunity (both in her native Pakistan and across the world). For this she was subject to a high-profile assassination attempt that nearly claimed her life and forced her and her father (the equally courageous Ziauddin Yousafzai) to flee to the U.K.,from where they nonetheless continue to fight for various human rights causes).

Although an already (justifiably) global figure by the time of her widely anticipated award, Malala’s co-recipient was unfortunately lesser known outside humanitarian circles and his native India: children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi (the Prize Committee was explicit about the symbolic message of selecting a Pakistani Muslim and Indian Hindu to share the prize). Such a pairing is well-warranted, for together with Malala, he has helped bring attention to, and advance the cause of, helping one of the world’s most vulnerable demographics.

Satyarthi has been a leading figure in fighting child slavery and labor exploitation for nearly three decades, beginning with his founding of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Childhood Movement) in 1980, which campaigns to free children from bondage and promote their education. It has so far freed over 80,000 children from servitude, also helping to successfully re-integrate, rehabilitate, and educate them.

Since that time, his storied career in human rights has spanned numerous other movements and groups — he has served as secretary general for for the Bonded Labor Liberation Front; has been involved with the Global March Against Child Labor and its international advocacy body, the International Center on Child Labor and Education (ICCLE); founded Goodweave, the first voluntary monitoring and certification system for rugs manufactured without the use of child-labor in South Asia; and co-founded the Global Campaign for Education, for which he served as president of from its inception in 1999 to 2011.

A clearly energetic and dedicated figure, a recent article in The Guardian highlights just how active Satyarthi is on this front, going so far as to involve himself directly in the risky operations on the ground:

He would show the scars from the interventions that had gone really badly, like the time a group of men from the Great Roman Circus – who were employing trafficked teenagers from Nepal as dancing girls – attacked him with iron rods and cricket bats.

And we would discuss the industries and the places that were proving harder to rid of the “scourge of child labour”– his phrase – than others.

With Kailash’s guidance and contacts, I pursued stories on Indian children making footballs for sale in Australia; girls sold into bonded labour schemes in textile mills; boys from poor families trafficked thousands of kilometres to work in tiny, collapse-prone ‘rat-hole’ coal mines; girls from itinerant families forced by economic circumstance into mining mica, the mineral that goes into makeup to make it shiny.

From direct intervention, to constantly shining a spotlight on this often ignored issue, Satyarthi is as unrelenting as Malala in ensuring that the fight for human rights continues onward, unabated. Quoting a telling part of The Guardian piece:

But always there was more with Kailash: more stories the media could cover to highlight the problem; more that the government could do to enforce the legislation parliament had passed to outlaw child labour and mandate education; more police could do to stamp out the corruption that meant officers looked the other way; more that multinational companies in the developing world could do to ensure they weren’t making their money from the bent backs of children.

Like Malala, he places a considerable emphasis on education as a means to uplift the plight of children and, subsequently, improve the condition of millions of people worldwide for years to come:

Children in schools will change the world.

Girls born to a literate mother are 50% more likely to survive until the age of five.

Boys who have the chance at a genuine education and a working life beyond don’t become radical fundamentalists.

Universal education will transform developing nations such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, places where the practice of keeping children (especially girls) from school – to work, to be married, to raise siblings – stubbornly persists.

Across those three countries, an estimated 22 million primary-school aged children are not in school. But, overwhelmingly, the obstacles that keep them from class are solvable.

Malala was stopped from going to school by the vile fanaticism of the Pakistani Taliban. But for every girl stopped by fundamentalism, there are 10 in her part of the world who are not at school for much more prosaic reasons.

They don’t go because the school is too far away, because it is not safe to walk there, because there is no segregation of boys and girls, no modesty wall, or working toilets.

They stop going because the teacher turns up only to mark the roll and get paid, or because there are no books or pencils.

They stay at home because they have to care for younger siblings, because they have been married off as children, or because they are made to go to work.

In the wake of his Nobel win, Satyarthi promised to “join hands” with his fellow laureate. But the Indian man rescuing children from slavery and the Pakistani teenage girl encouraging them into school are already working hand in hand.

With an estimated 168 million children still living in bondage, deprived of an education and decent standard of living, their work is as relevant as ever. But with the number of such victims declining by a considerable 78 million since 2000, it is clear that the work of such tireless advocates is having an incredible impact. Let us hope that the spotlight of this year’s Nobel Prize does a bit more to advance this worthy cause.

Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai (Source: India Today).

Norman Borlaug

Few people have ever head of Norman Borlaug, from the tiny town of Cresco, Iowa. This is despite the fact that he is one of only 5 people to have ever won a Nobel Peace Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Congressional Gold Medal, in addition to the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific achievement award in America. Mr. Borlaug is quite possibly one of the greatest humanitarians in human history – and the most unknown, his death in 2009 attracting little attention despite his monumental contributions.

An agronomist with a PhD in plant pathology and genetics, he is considered the father of the Green Revolution, a pivotal development in agriculture that increased food production to astounding levels and reversed decades of starvation in the developing world. It all began with his research in Mexico during the 1940s, in which he was seeking to develop a strain of wheat that was more resilient and provided higher crop yields. Growing up in a farming community of Norwegian immigrants in Iowa, he often noted with curiosity as to how some crops grew different in certain areas. This observation of plant variance, along with his innate sense of inquisitiveness and compassion, put him on the humbly heroic path to saving millions.

During the years of backbreaking work in Mexico, where he worked with locales and lived in austerity, he cross-bred and experimented with varieties of wheat before creating several strains that were resistant, faster growing, and yielded more grains. He had a promising career waiting for him in the DuPont corporation, but he declined the offer in order to go to Mexico and work on the field to help poor farmers feed themselves and make a profit as well. Within two decades after his work, Mexico reported their wheat yields as being reached 6-times higher than the year that Borlaug arrived. Now only was Mexico free of having to import food, but it’s farmers were able to feed themselves and have enough left over to sell in the market, enriching themselves and the entire country. made developing countries surplus producers of food.

Soon, Borlaug’s wheat strains – in addition to his methods and ideas, which were applied to rice as well – spread to other countries, namely India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, which also had to rely on imports and deal with horrific famines. Long predicted by scientists at the time to be approaching a Malthusian catastrophe, India soon recorded some of the largest crop yields in it’s history, after having invited Borlaug to conduct research with their own scientists. Neighboring Pakistan eventually got access to his wheat varieties as well, reporting similarly historic gains. Soon, scientists in China and the Philippines, with the help of philanthropists organizations, began following those remarkable examples and soon too brought bountiful harvests to their nation. Borlaug and his colleagues eventually distributed strains to numerous other nations in Latin America, the Middle-East, and Africa.

Norman Borlaug is believed to have saved anywhere from 245 million to even 1 billion lives, not including the millions more that might never had been born from the surplus his research contributed to. One estimate claims that half the world’s population is fed from one of the high-yield crops he and his fellows helped create. Granted, he didn’t do all this single-handedly: he had the financial support of numerous host governments, in addition to universities and charitable foundations.He worked with hundreds of researchers the world over. But that doesn’t dilute the fact that this simple, humble man, who refused to believe he even won the Nobel Prize when told so in 1970, did all this out of simple will and compassion. Even into his 80s and 90s he continued to work, notably helping to bring higher yields to dirt-poor and famine prone Ethiopia.

The Green Revolution he helped create wasn’t perfect, and it brought problems of it’s own, though it was hardly his fault. All he wanted was something simple but wholesome: to help the world. As he himself said, only a few years ago, “You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.” I dearly hope I can come within a fraction of such compassion and humanity.

“I Have No Enemies: My final Statement” by Liu Xiaobo

I have no enemies and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested, and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me, and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies. Although there is no way I can accept your monitoring, arrests, indictments, and verdicts, I respect your professions and your integrity, including those of the two prosecutors, Zhang Rongge and Pan Xueqing, who are now bringing charges against me on behalf of the prosecution. During interrogation on December 3, I could sense your respect and your good faith.

Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress towards freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation’s development and social change, to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.

It is precisely because of such convictions and personal experience that I firmly believe that China’s political progress will not stop, and I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China. For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme. I also hope that this sort of progress can be reflected in this trial as I await the impartial ruling of the collegial bench – a ruling that will withstand the test of history.

If I may be permitted to say so, the most fortunate experience of these past twenty years has been the selfless love I have received from my wife, Liu Xia. She could not be present as an observer in court today, but I still want to say to you, my dear, that I firmly believe your love for me will remain the same as it has always been. Throughout all these years that I have lived without freedom, our love was full of bitterness imposed by outside circumstances, but as I savour its aftertaste, it remains boundless. I am serving my sentence in a tangible prison, while you wait in the intangible prison of the heart. Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin, warming every cell of my body, allowing me to always keep peace, openness, and brightness in my heart, and filling every minute of my time in prison with meaning.

There is nothing criminal in anything I have done. if charges are brought against me because of this, I have no complaints.

Written by imprisoned Chinese human rights dissident Liu Xiaobo, prior to being sentenced to jail (for the fourth time) for “subversion of the state.” He wasn’t able to read it at his trial, as intended, but it would be read a year later on his behalf at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony that rightly honored him. He is currently serving out his latest prison sentence, slated to end in 2020.

Frankly, I don’t know how a man that has endured such suffering could remain so committed to love and tolerance, and could maintain such quiet dignity despite in the face of so many attempts to destroy it. Since my political coming-of-age back in high school, I’ve marveled at the remarkable courage, integrity, and virtue that characterizes so many of my fellow humans, even against such cynical and traumatic odds. I’ve read so many stories of once average people facing up some of the most oppressive and cruel regimes in human history – the best of human nature versus the worst; the most virtuous versus the most despicable – and I always ask myself one thing: what’s it like?

What’s it like to risk your dignity, freedom, and life? What’s it like to stand up against such insurmountable odds,  often alone? Most importantly, what would I do in their position?

Would I be brave enough to face down the most dangerous and vile elements of the human race?

Would I practice what I preach – in terms of liberty, human rights, political freedom – if these things were illegal and doing so could lead to horrible consequences?

Would I maintain my optimism and faith in humanity?

Do I have it in me to stand by my morals and beliefs?

Thanks to people like Liu Xiaobo, I’ll probably never know – I’ll never have to face such dilemmas.

Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann at the podium, reading "I Have No Enemies" during the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, in which Xiaobo was the recipient. His absence is symbolized by an empty chair on the stage