Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad win Nobel Peace Prize for combating wartime sexual violence

The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to two people, one a doctor and one a survivor of ISIS captivity, for their work in raising international awareness about wartime sexual violence.

  • Dr. Mukwege is a Congolese gynecologist who has helped to treat thousands of survivors of sexual violence.
  • Murad is a 25-year-old Yazidi woman who was taken captive by ISIS militants in 2014.
  • Both have sacrificed their own personal safety to speak out against wartime sexual violence, the Nobel committee said.

The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, and Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman and former captive of ISIS, for helping to combat wartime sexual assault.

"Both laureates have made a crucial contribution to focusing attention on, and combating, such war crimes," said Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Nobel Committee, on Friday at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo.

Who is Dr. Mukwege?

Dr. Mukwege is the founder of the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a nation the U.N. has called the "rape capital of the world" and where more than 1,000 women are raped every day. The initial goal behind the hospital was to curb maternal mortality rates.

"But our first patient did not come to deliver a baby," Dr. Mukwege said in a 2016 speech. "She had been raped with extreme violence."

Since 1999, the Panzi Hospital has treated more than 50,000 survivors of sexual violence through a five-pillar holistic healing model that includes "physical care, psychosocial support, community reintegration services, legal assistance, and education and advocacy to address the root causes of violence."

"You just can't imagine how a smile, a simple handshake, to just tell them 'be encouraged' is important to them. To feel they are loved, to feel they can finally find love and affection," Dr. Mukwege told CNN in 2009.

Dr. Mukwege once described how seeing the recovery of young sexual violence survivors motivates him to keep working

"The kids' strength to go on living gives me strength to go on taking care of them," Dr. Mukwege said in an interview. "It just tells you, 'It's all good.' You have got to keep fighting for life, you have got to keep on giving life, you have got to give hope to others."

The Nobel committee said that Dr. Mukwege's philosophy is "justice is everyone's business."

"Denis Mukwege is the foremost, most unifying symbol, both nationally and internationally, of the struggle to end sexual violence in war and armed conflicts," said Reiss-Andersen.

Who is Nadia Murad?

(Photo: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Nadia Murad accepts the 2016 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which she shares with Lamiya Aji Bashar, for their work in advocacy for the Yazidi community in Iraq and survivors of sexual enslavement by the Islamic State jihadists.

In August 2014, ISIS militants invaded Murad's Yazidi community in the village of Kocho in Northern Iraq, a region that's long been home to the monotheistic religious minority. The militants told all the residents to walk to a school on the outskirts of town, and, upon arriving, separated the men from the women.

Murad, who was 19 years old at the time, watched as the militants murdered more than 300 men, including six of her brothers and step brothers. The militants took her, along with other young women, as a sex slave. The elderly women, presumably too undesirable or burdensome to the militants, were executed and buried in a mass grave that would later be discovered by Kurdish forces.

In an interview with Time, Murad describes how some of the captured women committed or attempted suicide.

"I did not want to kill myself, she said. "But I wanted them to kill me."

For three months, Murad was held as a slave in Mosul by ISIS militants who beat her, burned her with cigarettes, and raped her after a failed escape attempt. One night in November 2014 her captor left a door unlocked and she managed to escape, eventually ending up in Germany through a program that helps relocate refugees.

Since her escape, Murad has been speaking out about the atrocities she and her fellow Yazidis suffered at the hands of ISIS, who consider the Yazidi to be "kafir" or nonbelievers. In 2015, she told part of her story to the U.N. Security Council.

"I cannot imagine how painful it must be every time you are asked to recount your experience," U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said to Murad after her testimony. "And your being here and speaking so bravely to all of us is a testament to your resilience and your dignity—and it's of course the most powerful rejection of what ISIL stands for."

It's estimated that, around the time of Murad's capture, ISIS militants killed more than 5,000 Yazidi men, captured about 6,500 women and children, and forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands more.

"For eight months, they separated us from our mothers and our sisters and our brothers, and some of them were killed and others disappeared," Murad told CNN in 2017.

Murad is the 17th woman to win, and the second-youngest recipient of, the Nobel Peace Prize.

Reiss-Andersen said both winners have put their own personal security at risk by combating war crimes and seeking justice for victims.

"Denis Mukwege is the helper who has devoted his life to defending these victims," Reiss-Andersen said. "Nadia Murad is the witness who tells of the abuses perpetrated against herself and others."

As of Friday morning, it wasn't clear whether Murad was aware she had won the award; the committee couldn't reach her by phone. Dr. Mukwege was reportedly in the middle of surgery when he found out he had won.

"For almost 20 years I have witnessed war crimes committed against women, girls and even baby girls not only in my country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also in many other countries," he said.

"To the survivors from all over the world, I would like to tell you that through this prize, the world is listening to you and refusing to remain indifferent. The world refuses to sit idly in the face of your suffering."

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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