I’ve seen the horror of rape in war but the Nobel peace prize winners are giving women hope

The Yazidi campaigner Nadia Murad was the first to recount her ordeal publicly PATRICK SEEGER/EPA
The Yazidi campaigner Nadia Murad was the first to recount her ordeal publicly PATRICK SEEGER/EPA

Like many women I have followed the growing #MeToo movement over the last year with a mixture of delight and horror. Delight that so many assaulted women feel emboldened to speak out and to take no more of the sexual harassment many of us middle-aged women once took for granted from the likes of the mooning news editor in my first job. Horror that it was so prevalent — one in three women experiences sexual violence in their lifetime. Among the victims were strong women I could never have imagined being abused.

But through it all I have felt a certain unease. What about the women who do not have resources for lawyers or access to the media? And what about those in countries across the world where rape is used as a weapon of war and women are the easiest target?

As a foreign correspondent mostly reporting on war, I have witnessed more brutality against women in the past few years than ever before.

Never will I forget listening to Nadia Murad’s niece, who was just 16 when she was taken captive by an Isis judge who raped her every night. She told me the worst night was when he brought home a 10-year-old who cried for her mother as he forced himself on her in the next room.

What must it have been like to be in the Galaxy cinema in the Iraqi city of Mosul, where hundreds of Yazidi girls were corralled in a latter-day slave market and sorted into ugly and beautiful? What terror must they have felt as Isis fighters came through, fondled their breasts and took their pick?

Stories like this haunt me day and night. The Yazidi girl sold on 12 times to men who chose names from a bowl. The six-year-old Nigerian girl who shuffled like a crab because she had been raped so many times by Boko Haram fighters. Or the Rohingya mother gang-raped in front of her children by Burmese soldiers. For these women and girls there is usually no counselling, compensation or conviction of a perpetrator.

Instead they are often the ones condemned — to a lifetime of shame, sleepless nights and difficulties forming relationships, not to mention physical damage. In many cases they are ostracised from their communities.

So I was overjoyed that this year’s Nobel peace prize went to two of my heroes, Nadia Murad and the Congolese gynaecologist Dr Denis Mukwege, for their work fighting against sexual violence in conflict.
Nadia, 25, was the first Yazidi to recount her experience on the world stage, bravely describing how she was repeatedly sold on and raped, trying to shame the world into seeking justice. Her memoir is called Last Girl because she says “I want to be the last girl to suffer this”.

Denis, 63, has treated more rape victims than anyone on earth — maybe 50,000, he says, since opening his Panzi hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1999. The hospital was originally intended to deal with maternal mortality but then his first patient arrived — a victim of gang rape.

Congo is generally regarded as the world capital of rape. All sides are at it — soldiers and rebels have raped an estimated 200,000 women in the past 10 years. One study in the town of Goma in 2010 found four women being raped every five minutes.

This summer I had lunch with Denis in Geneva. Over spicy curry he expressed despair about the international community’s failure to tackle war rape — and told me the victims he is treating have become ever younger, most recently a six-month-old.

Dr Denis Mukwege has treated 50,000 victims WOLFGANG SCHMIDT/EPA
Dr Denis Mukwege has treated 50,000 victims WOLFGANG SCHMIDT/EPA

“I think we need a new word for rape,” he told me. “It seems like it is not taken seriously enough.”

Typically this humble man was in the operating theatre when he got the good news from Norway on Friday. But Denis says he realised long ago that the problem wouldn’t be “solved on the operating table”. His centre also provides counselling and supports the women to become economically independent as well as offering legal resources. His aim, he says, is “to turn victims into survivors”.

Recently he secured a big victory, winning a case in which militias had been raping children.

None of this makes him popular. In 2012, after he had spoken out at the UN in New York, his home was attacked by gunmen and his two daughters taken hostage. To this day he does not know how they escaped. But he won’t give up.

“I don’t want anyone to be able to say they didn’t know,” Denis told me.

Of course, there has always been rape in war. From the ancient Greeks, Persians and Romans to the “comfort women” of the Japanese army and the rape of German women by the Red Army in the Second World War, women have long been seen as spoils of war. Rape and pillage was a way of rewarding unpaid recruits and punishing and subjugating opponents.

In recent years, however, ethnic and sectarian groups have used rape almost as a weapon of mass destruction, not just to humiliate and terrorise communities but to wipe out what they see as rival ethnicities or non-believers.

It took rape camps in Europe for sexual violence in conflict to get global attention, during the war in Bosnia in the 1990s. Numbers are tricky because many women don’t come forward, but an estimated 20,000 Bosnian Muslim women were raped by Serbs. Then there was Rwanda, where between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped in 100 days in 1994.

In 2014 Isis told its members it was their religious duty to enslave Yazidis.
In northern Nigeria, Boko Haram rounded up victims such as the Chibok schoolgirls and used them as incubators to produce a new generation of jihadists in a chilling real-life version of The Handmaid’s Tale.

But rape is not something that “just happens” in war. It has been enshrined in international law as a crime against humanity for almost a century, and banned by the Geneva conventions.

Yet too often there is silence and denial, as if only the killings matter, even though the women have been left, as many survivors told me, “dead inside”.

After the Second World War there were no trials for rape — it is still taboo in Russia to talk of the Red Army rapes as they swept into Berlin. Only recently has the Japanese government acknowledged the state’s role in enslaving Korean and Chinese women in military brothels.

The first conviction for war rape was secured only just over 20 years ago — against the mayor of a small town in Rwanda. There have been very few since. Women’s groups in Bosnia complain many of their rapists are still at large.

Not one member of Isis or Boko Haram has been indicted for sexual violence. Indeed when I spent a day watching trials of Isis members in Nineveh, and asked the chief judge about rape, he laughed. “Why would we bother about that when so many people were killed?” he asked.

Recently I went back to the Yazidi camps in Iraq for this newspaper and found many living in limbo, unable to return to a homeland in rubble and still waiting for someone to dig up the mass graves or take their witness statements. Some have committed suicide. More than 3,000 are still missing.

When William Hague was foreign secretary, the UK led the way in getting sexual violence in war onto the global agenda. Yet this country has refused asylum to the few Yazidis that have made it here.

Sometimes it feels as if we are going backwards — the International Criminal Court recently acquitted Jean-Pierre Bemba, the Congolese warlord convicted in 2016 for atrocities by his militia, including widespread rape. Last week the Japanese city of Osaka ended 60 years of twinning with San Francisco in protest against a statue to commemorate comfort women.

For too long the world has remained silent. I hope, after the recognition of Denis and Nadia, the international community will enforce its laws and start to punish those who persist in treating women’s bodies as a battlefield. Perhaps then #MeToo will finally become #WeToo.

Christina Lamb’s book Our Bodies, Their Battlefields will be published by William Collins next spring.

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