The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman from Iraq who suffered the dehumanization of sexual slavery by the Islamic State, and Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese surgeon who has treated women victims of sexual violence. Both of these heroic individuals are raising awareness of how rape is being used as a weapon of war. They have risked their lives to tell the stories of the continuum of atrocities being perpetrated on women – kidnapping, torture, rape, mutilation, and death.
Two moving and informative documentary films profile the lives and missions of these Nobel Laureates.
On Her Shoulders follows Nadia Murad from radio stations to refugee camps to the United Nations as she tells her own story and urges action to save women like herself who are still held captive by ISIS.
City of Joy includes a visit to Panza Hospital in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo where Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist, performs repair surgeries on rape victims. At the City of Joy center nearby, women recover and learn leadership skills.
Berit Reiss-Anderson, the chairwoman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said of the 2018 Peace Prize: "We want to send a message of awareness that women, who constitute half of the population in most communities, actually are used as a weapon of war, that they need protection and that the perpetrators have to be prosecuted and held responsible for their actions."
In spiritual circles, we call this work "bearing witness." A Buddhist practice adopted by people from many traditions, it offers a way to connect with and serve those who are suffering. In an article in Lion's Roar, Zen teacher Jules Shuzne Harris offers a three-step practice for "How to Practice Bearing Witness." He writes:
"In times of doubt, disbelief, and insecurity, the practice of bearing witness can be an important aspect of awareness and presence. Bearing witness can be defined as acknowledging that something exists or is true."
What is the benefit of bearing witness practice? Harris continues:
"Psychologically, it enables us to connect with a place of real empathy. It also provides a kind of catharsis, a release from our emotional reactions of pity, shame, or fear.
"Spiritually, bearing witness invokes a sense of interconnectedness, of oneness, a direct realization of the wholeness of life.
"Politically and socially, it enables us to see clearly the entire web of causes and conditions that create suffering, and to take effective action to improve people's lives."
We have curated some articles that will help you better understand how rape is being used as a weapon of war so you can determine your own way of bearing witness to this reality. You may help spread awareness, bringing these atrocities to the attention of the press, your spiritual community, or your government representatives. You might support organizations working to provide services to victims of sexual violence. You might push for policies and legislation that address the suffering caused by war and promote peace.
"Rape as a Weapon on War" has a long history, according to this article on FacingHistory.org, noting the Nanjing atrocities, the rapes of Muslim women by Bosnian Serbs, and the Rwanda genocide. Philosophy professor Claudia Card expands our understanding by examining the role rape plays in the crime of genocide: "There is more than one way to commit genocide. One way is mass murder, killing individual members of a national, political, or cultural group. Another is to destroy a group's identity by decimating cultural and social bonds. Martial rape (rape committed during war) does both. . . . If there is one set of fundamental functions of rape, civilian or martial, it is to display, communicate, and produce or maintain dominance. . . . Acts of forcible rape, like other instances of torture, communicate dominance by removing our control." In 1998 the International Criminal Court explicitly defined rape as an individual crime, a war crime, and a crime against humanity.
"Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War," a news report from UNICEF notes that conflicts in Bosnia, Cambodia, Croatia, Haiti, Herzegovina, Myanmar, Peru, Rwanda, Somalia Uganda, and even more areas have all singled out girls and women for rape, imprisonment, torture, and execution; women have been trafficked as sex slaves and forced into prostitution. "Sexual violation of woman erodes the fabric of a community in a way that few weapons can. Rape's damage can be devastating because of the strong communal reaction to the violation and pain stamped on entire families. The harm inflicted in such cases on a woman by a rapist is an attack on her family and culture, as in many societies women are viewed as repositories of a community's cultural and spiritual values."
"ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape" is a very troubling 2015 report in The New York Times written by Rukmini Callimachi. A total of 5,270 Yazidis were abducted in, and at the time of writing, at least 3,144 are still being held. The Islamic State has developed an elaborate bureaucracy of sex slavery and is using the prospect of raping women as a recruiting tool. ISIS is using "narrow and selective" readings from the Quran to justify rape as spiritually beneficial.
"Outraged by the Attacks on Yazidis? It Is Time to Help" by Nadia Murad is an opinion piece in The New York Times published in February 2018. Murad calls the world to move away from the personal stories of survivors and to take practical steps toward prosecuting the Islamic State and reconstructing Yazidi areas of Iraq. She tells of meeting another victim of sexual slavery, a young African woman who had been kidnapped and raped by Boko Haram militants (see the documentary Stolen Daughters) and concludes: "Rather than emphasizing our victimhood, that connection to other women empowers us to take back our lives and to fight for our community's future. Like those brave women, Yazidi survivors are much more than victims. We are activists and we need more than empathy."
"Dr. Mukwege Fights Back" by Denis Mukwege is an opinion piece in The New York Times published in November 2012. He writes: "Rape is one of the most deadly weapons of war, destroying families and communities and future generations, as well as the women brutally targeted." He describes how he was nearly killed in a violent attack, underlining the risks activists take when bearing witness. Calling upon the international community, he writes: "We do not need more proof of what is happening [to Congolese women], we need action to stop it, action to arrest those responsible for these crimes against humanity and to bring them to justice."