If the Democratic Republic of Congo has become synonymous with violence, for almost 20 years Dr Denis Mukwege has dedicated his life to repairing the gynaecological tears and mutilations sustained by women who have been brutally raped. Often violated with sticks, guns and other objects, the damage done to their bodies is both physical and psychological. Many women are left with gaping fistulae, and the leakage of urine and faecal matter not only compromises their personal hygiene but also, by extension, exposes them to ridicule, humiliation and social stigmatization. The work of Dr Mukwege and the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, in eastern DRC, is therefore invaluable. Using his surgical skills, Dr Mukwege has saved many lives and helped to heal the bodies of thousands of women. If, as he has stressed many times, the sense of shame that so often surrounds rape needs to shift from the victim to the perpetrator, his stitches and sutures are crucial for countering the ‘othering’ of violated bodies – and for sending the message that whatever these bodies have been subjected to, they can recover and mend.
Nadia Murad is an example of this. Kidnapped by Islamic State fighters in 2014, along with many other Yazidi women and children in northern Iraq, Murad was enslaved and raped. Now a tireless advocate for women’s rights and the rights of the Yazidi minority, she relieves her experiences each time that she tells her story. Despite this, she is committed to getting justice, for herself and for others like her, and she has stated publicly that her story is the best weapon that she has in this regard.
On 5 October 2018, Dr Mukwege and Nadia Murad were deservedly jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Not only does this accolade recognize their personal efforts in fighting against conflict-related sexual violence. More broadly, it also conveys the important message that everything must be done to tackle this recurrent scourge of war that impacts on countless lives, including those of families and communities.
In line with its multiple effects, conflict-related sexual violence speaks to a variety of different issues and sub-disciplines, from gender and human rights to peace-building and transitional justice. This is reflected in the fact that there are colleagues across the University of Birmingham who are working, directly or indirectly, on sexual violence in conflict zones. My own research, which is being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is exploring resilience in victims/survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Using the three country case studies of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia and Uganda, my two research assistants and I are seeking to identify and understand – using a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods – the key factors that explain why some individuals who have experienced conflict-related sexual violence demonstrate high levels of resilience while others do not. The ultimate aim is to develop a new model of transitional justice which itself contributes to fostering resilience.
The theme of resilience remains critically neglected within existing scholarship on conflict-related sexual violence. To focus simply on trauma, however, potentially risks trapping those who have been raped and sexually abused in a perpetual victim role. This is a further reason why the efforts of Dr Mukwege and Nadia Murad are so important. Their work not only underscores that sexual violence does not have to destroy lives. Fundamentally, it also gives those who have suffered these crimes the opportunity to be something other than victims.
While the efforts of these two Nobel Prize winners have been critical in helping to draw attention to the use of sexual violence against women in armed conflict, it is essential to acknowledge that men and boys are also subjected to crimes such as rape, genital beatings and forced fellatio. It is to be hoped that in the future, more attention will be given to this issue – and that the efforts of those seeking to raise the profile of male victims/survivors will themselves be recognized.