What could an international award funded posthumously by the 19th century Swedish inventor of dynamite mean for a young person in Africa or a community in rural Asia? Isn’t Alfred Nobel’s prize just an excuse for the world’s glitterati to don fancy clothes and offer up lofty speeches about unreachable ideals? What’s in it for us?
As the Nobel committee showed in awarding the 2018 peace prize to two individuals fighting the scourge of rape as a weapon of war, the honor often serves as a wake-up call to the world. Sexual harassment and violence surged onto the public agenda in the United States in 2018, propelled by investigative reporting and social media outrage, implicating prominent men. Yet this deep-rooted epidemic resonates too in conflict hot spots outside the spotlight across the globe.
Congolese gynecological surgeon Doctor Denis Mukwege and Iraqi activist Nadia Murad shared the 2018 prize for efforts to raise awareness and deal with the damage of sexual violence. Murad escaped sex slavery by Islamic State militants and “has shown uncommon courage in recounting her own sufferings and speaking up on behalf of other victims,” the Nobel committee said. Mukwege has treated thousands of women at his Panzi Hospital in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. More than 1 million women and girls have been raped during two decades of conflicts in the sprawling central African country, estimates the United Nations.
“This Nobel prize is a recognition of the suffering and the failure to adequately compensate women who are victims of rape and sexual violence in all countries around the world,” Mukwege told reporters outside his hospital in Bukavu, on the southern shore of Lake Kivu near Rwanda, according to the BBC.
A look back at the Nobel Peace Prize honorees reveals how the world’s most cherished humanitarian award can inspire us to take up peacemaking within our own spheres of influence. Here are 7 ways the prize can change us:
- OUR WANDERING ATTENTION IS DIRECTED TOWARD A PROBLEM THAT MATTERS
Fluffy celebrity squabbles, fickle fashion trends and hyperbolic, social-media fueled grievances over pretty much nothing crowd out our view of critical challenges. Hunger, deforestation, water scarcity, inequality, ethnic purges and manifold abuses endured by women in the developing world demand sustained attention. The Nobel Peace Prize signals where we need to look.
- WE DISCOVER NEW HEROES AND MODELS FOR LOCAL ACTION
While Nobel winners in science or literature tend to be towering figures operating at genius level over decades (Curie, Einstein, Hemingway), the peace laureates sometimes look a lot more like the rest of us. Yes, world leaders have claimed the honor, from Nelson Mandela to Jimmy Carter to Mikhail Gorbachev, yet so have Guatemalan indigenous-rights advocate Rigoberta Menchu, Liberian women’s peace activist Leymah Gbowee and, famously, Pakistani girls-rights champion Malala Yousafzai.
- THE STRUGGLES OF NOBEL LAUREATES REFRAME OUR LOCAL CHALLENGES
We may not be able to lead a movement to replenish forests and empower rural hopes as Kenya’s peace laureate Wangari Maathai did, yet maybe we could take action to protect a biodiverse patch of nearby wilderness sustainably used by communities. Shifting a nation’s democratic trajectory might be out of reach, though perhaps we can help build dialogue across ethnic, economic or religious lines in our village or province. While the Nobel may reward the scale of an achievement, impact is an equally important measure. And impact is crucial at any scale.
- YOU START TO DEAL WITH LINKED PROBLEMS
Malala brought attention to girls being denied education. Pulling back the camera, we see underlying issues: girls expected in some societies to accept a future with fewer opportunities than boys; the voices of women absent from crucial social and political conversations around development, peace and governance; and the need to sensitize men to the costs of entrenched gender inequality.
- WE SEE HOW GROUP ACTION CAN BOOST THE POTENTIAL FOR SUCCESS
Twenty-seven times the Nobel has gone to organizations, with the International Committee of the Red Cross claiming the honor three times (1917, 1944 and 1963) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees twice (1954 and 1981). Linking up with like-minded individuals can be the most effective way to make change. When four Tunisian civil-society organizations banded together to help reinforce the North African country’s fragile democratic transition, Tunisians across the political spectrum ended up the winners. The Nobel committee took note in 2015, declaring that the National Dialogue Quartet had made a “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy.”
- OUR FOCUS SHIFTS FROM TALK TO ACTION
Above all, the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize tell us stories about taking action, moving from talk to engagement. They might have to overcome fears and cross frontiers of stigma and social disapproval. Taking a stand might draw out the haters, and worse: Doctor Mukwege had to flee his country at one point for fear of being killed when he denounced the long-running armed conflict and called for accountability. Action means taking on – and managing – risks to reach the desired result. The peace laureates show us how to make those moves.
- THE PRIZE REMINDS US THAT PEACE IS ATTAINABLE
The Nobel Peace Prize emerged in humanity’s most deadly century, which claimed millions of lives, from the battlefield trenches of Europe as empires crumbled, to the gentle hills of Rwanda as ethnic hatreds exploded. Striving to build peaceful resolutions to conflict, or to diminish tensions before conflict can erupt, is noble Nobel-inspired work during the other 364 days of the year, too.