Murad, Mukwege, and Mending: How Sexual Violence is Still Used in War

Contributor Eliška Stroehlein is a second year English Law – French Law student with an interest in international law, queerness, and representation.

[Featured Image: Ink drawings of 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege.]

Every year, a committee in Oslo is presented with hundreds of nominations, including organisations such as the Arctic Council and individuals such as Edward Snowden.  Whoever is chosen as the winner, or winners, will receive a little over a million dollars for “outstanding contributions to peace”, and a guarantee that their work, that they have often been quietly pursing for decades with little recognition, will be in the catapulted to the forefront for public interest. If people hear of one Human Rights figure in 365 days, more often than not that one individual will be the Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Denis Mukwege was surely aware of all this and more when he was tapped on the shoulder in the middle of performing surgery in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and told that he had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Nadia Murad.

The two 2018 laureates come from very different backgrounds; Mukwege set up the Panzi Hospital in 1999 which specialises in women’s health. Every year, thousands of sexual violence survivors come through the doors, many of their attackers soldiers in the DRC’s long running armed conflict. Known as “the man who mends women”, the gynaecologist has pioneered multiple reconstructive surgery techniques; when accepting his award, Mukwege said in a statement that he “dedicate[d] this Nobel Prize to women of all countries in the world, harmed by conflict and facing violence every day […] to the survivors from all over the world”.

Murad is Yazidi, a religious minority spread over Syria and Northern Iraq, and one such survivor. In 2014, as part of ISIL’s genocide against the Yazidi people, she was one of over 3000 women kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery. She eventually escaped,  and has been an advocate for human rights ever since, sharing her story with the world in the hope of inspiring others, as well as taking legal action against ISIL commanders. Nadia Murad is only the 17th woman to be awarded the Peace Prize and the second youngest. She plans to use her prize money to build a hospital in Sinjar, Iraq, her hometown, in order to “treat ill people, mainly widows and women who were exposed to sexual abuses by Islamic State militants”.

In choosing these two particular laureats, the Nobel committee unequivocally acknowledged the widespread use of rape and sexual violence against women in particular as a weapon of war. Many, especially in the West, were quick to slot this win in as part of the #MeToo movement, yet this may be an oversimplification, as the history surrounding this issue goes back millennia.


The English word “rape” originally comes from the Latin “rapere” meaning “to snatch”, “to grab” or “to carry off in much the same way one might an object. The women who were raped were not seen as the victims, rather their husbands, sons and brothers were (look no further than expressions such “Raping our women”). Lord Chief Justice Holt proclaimed that “adultery is the highest invasion of property”; in societies where women are seen as chattel, rape is seen as stealing. Too often has the Law and society as a whole turned a blind eye to a woman’s personal suffering as a result of such trauma.

Thus, with this kind of attitude in the domestic setting, it is easy to seen how rape came to be used in the military context. When an army conquered new land, they took everything that land had to offer as the spoils of war. Resources, strategic positioning and yes, women, were all seen as fair game, as a prize righty awarded to the winner. Moreover, gang rape was seen as a way to unite troops and boost moral, particularly when they had been recruited by force. Despite some attempts to restrict the use of rape in war, as seen in Islamic military Fiqh or jurisprudence, it prevailed for centuries.

Some modern examples of the weaponisation of rape include the Nanking Massacre, so infamous it is now often referred to as the Rape of Nanking, and while numbers vary, most historians agree that tens of thousands of women and children were raped.  1971 saw the outbreak of the Bangladesh Liberation War and with it came widespread sexual attacks. Bosnia and Rwanda have witnessed similar phenomenons since. If this whistle stop tour shows one thing to be certain, it is that rape is war and war is rape. The problem is endemic in military hierarchies, from the lowest local infantry soldier to recent reports of UN peacekeepers raping two teenage girls in South Sudan.

Sexual violence also has a significant colonial history and many of the above examples stem from times of genocide or ethnic cleansing. By deeply traumatising women and girls, entire communities became easier to subjugate, not to mention the fact that trauma can be passed down in a family, thus guaranteeing control for decades if not centuries.

It is important to point out that women and girls are not the only targets of rape in wartime, men and boys often are too. During the El Salvadoran Civil War, over three quarters of male political prisoners were estimated to have been raped at least once. Such cases are even more underreported than incidents against women, for fear of being subject to the stigma which surrounds same-sex intercourse. It is easy to see the imprints of toxic masculinity in these testimonies, with one Congolese refugees saying he does not want to tell his brother about his ordeal out of  “fear he will say: ‘Now, my brother is not a man'”.

Rape is, by its very nature, a private crime. War is, by its very nature, a public crime. Where the two come together, as they so often have, the results have been horrendous, both for individuals and communities. The increased attention that the Nobel Prize has brought will surely be a step in the right direction for eradicating the problem, however long term justice is still desperately needed.




  1. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad win Nobel Peace Prize for fight against sexual violence” by Laura Smith-Spark, CNN – 5 October 2018.
  2. Nobel Peace Prize winners prove survivor stories matter” by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, CNN – 10 December 2018.
  3. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad win Nobel Peace Prize for fight against sexual violence” by Laura Smith-Spark, CNN – 5 October 2018.
  4. Nobel Prize Winner Nadia Murad Is Building a Hospital for Survivors of Sexual Violence” by Sophie Maes, Global Citizen – 17 December 2018.
  5. With a nod to #MeToo, Nobel’s 2018 choice captures moment in history” by Nina dos Santos, CNN – 6 October  2018.
  6. Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England” by Corinne J. Saunders,  Boydell & Brewer – 2001.
  7. Judging Evil: Rethinking the Law of Murder and Manslaughter “ by Samuel H. Pillsbury, NYU Press – 1998.
  8. Commentary: Terrorism Is at Odds With Islamic Tradition” by Khaled Abou El Fadl, LA Times – 2001.
  9. Nanjing by the Numbers” by Kate Merkel-Hess & Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Foreign Policy – February 9 2010.
  10. UN peacekeepers accused of child rape in South Sudan” The Guardian – 24 April 2018.
  11. 10 Reasons Why Colonialism Strengthened Rape Culture In Latinx Communities” by Mala Muñoz, Everyday Feminism – 31 July 2017.
  12. The rape of men: the darkest secret of war” by Will Storr, The Guardian – 17 July 2011.
  13. (Featured Image Source: Niklas Elmehed)


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