'Prioritizing humanity, not war': Anti-sexual violence activists win Nobel Peace Prize

Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist treating victims of sexual violence in Congo, and Nadia Murad, a Yazidi human rights activist and survivor of sexual slavery by the ISIS, have won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.

Congolese doctor, Yazidi activist chosen by Nobel committee

Dr. Denis Mukwege of Congo and Nadia Murad, a Yazidi activist from Iraq, addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, separately, in 2014 and 2016, respectively. On Friday, they were named as co-winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. (Christian Lutz/Associated Press)

Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist treating victims of sexual violence in Congo, and Nadia Murad, a Yazidi human rights activist and survivor of sexual slavery by the ISIS, won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.

The Norwegian Nobel committee said it had awarded them the prize for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

"Both laureates have made a crucial contribution to focusing attention on, and fighting, such war crimes," it said in its citation.

Mukwege, 63, heads the Panzi Hospital in the eastern city of Bukavu. Opened in 1999, the clinic receives thousands of women each year, many of them requiring surgery from sexual violence. Armed men tried to kill him in 2012, forcing him to temporarily leave the country.

"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 committee said in its citation.

Victims of sexual violence listen during a visit by a UN official at Panzi hospital in Bukavu, South Kivu province in eastern Congo, in September 2007. (James Akena/Reuters)

Eastern Congo has seen more than two decades of conflict among armed groups that either sought to unseat presidents or simply grab control of a piece of the country's vast mineral wealth.

Reached by phone on Friday, Mukwege said he was in surgery when he learned he had been named a Nobel laureate.

"I can see in the faces of many women how they are happy to be recognized. This is really so touching."

Harrowing ordeal

Murad is an advocate for the Yazidi minority in Iraq and for refugee and women's rights in general. She is one of an estimated 3,000 Yazidi girls and women who were victims of rape and other abuses by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

"Each of them in their own way has helped to give greater visibility to wartime sexual violence, so that the perpetrators can be held accountable for their actions," the committee said.

Murad was 21 years old in 2014 when ISIS militants attacked the village where she had grown up in northern Iraq. They killed those who refused to convert to Islam, including six of her brothers and her mother.

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to ISIS, flee toward the Syrian border on Aug. 11, 2014. (Rodi Said/Reuters)

Murad, along with many of the other young women in her village, was taken into captivity by the militants and sold repeatedly for sex as part of ISIS's slave trade.

She eventually escaped captivity with the help of a Sunni Muslim family in Mosul, the group's de facto capital in Iraq, and became an advocate for the rights of her community around the world. At 23, she was named the UN's first goodwill ambassador for the dignity of survivors of human trafficking.

"As a survivor, I am grateful for this opportunity to draw international attention to the plight of the Yazidi people who have suffered unimaginable crimes since the genocide by Daesh [ISIS], which began in 2014," Murad said in a statement released Friday. "We must remain committed to rebuilding communities ravaged by genocide. Survivors deserve a safe and secure pathway home or safe passage elsewhere.

"We must not only imagine a better future for women, children and persecuted minorities, we must work consistently to make it happen — prioritizing humanity, not war."

Murad visited Canada in July 2016 and lobbied Ottawa to allow in more Yazidi refugees.

​"It is unacceptable for a woman to be rescued from captivity from ISIS to come and not have a place to live, to be put in refugee camps," Murad told CBC's Nahlah Ayed in a 2016 interview. "It is unacceptable for education, for people not to have education. We are a peaceful community that existed in Iraq for thousands of years and we deserve a better life."

In October 2016, MPs unanimously supported a motion to bring an unspecified number of Yazidi women and girls to Canada within 120 days. In February 2017, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen announced the target would be 1,200 by the end of 2017.

Today, there are roughly 1,310 government-supported Yazidi refugees and 94 privately sponsored Yazidis in the country, the immigration minister's office told CBC News.

Watch as Murad speaks on Parliament Hill in July 2016:

Nadia Murad Basee Taha, a Yazidi, and Human Rights Activist, makes an impassioned presentation to the Federal Immigration Committee asking for canada to start bringing in more Yazidi refugees. 2:27

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel, who sponsored the 2016 motion, said Friday she "can't think of anyone on the planet more deserving" of the award than Murad. 

"This is a victory for her, this is a victory for her people, and it underscores the need for international action to prevent women's bodies being used as tools of war," Rempel said.

Hussam Abdullah, head of the Yazidi Organization for Documentation, said "this win represents the international recognition of the genocide that was committed by Daesh."

Asked whether the #MeToo movement against sexual violence was an inspiration for this year's prize, Nobel committee chair Berit Reiss-Andersen said: "MeToo and war crimes are not quite the same. But they have in common that they see the suffering of women, the abuse of women, and that it is important that women leave the concept of shame behind and speak up."

The prize is worth 9 million Swedish kronor ($1.29 million Cdn). It will be presented in Oslo on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, who founded the awards in his 1895 will.

Last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner was the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press