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 Whistleblowers Need Protection


Meet the heroes passed over for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize

By Stephanie Gutmann,
October 12, 2009

President Obama says he will donate the $ 1.4 million that comes with the Nobel Peace Prize to charity. As usual he’s being vague about the details, so I have a suggestion for him. How about the Shuhada Organization which was founded by Dr Sima Samar, MD, one of the also-rans for this year’s prize.

The Shuhada organization runs hospitals, schools and health clinics for girls and women all over Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Dr Samar literally risked her life many times to get this thing, now in it’s 20th year, off the ground. Dr. Samar has a hell of a resume. If I’d been reviewing it as a member of the selection committee it would have knocked my socks off. Then again, I’m not a dweeby Scandinavian former Socialist party intellectual who doesn’t get out much and thus thinks it’s a miracle sent by God if a black man talks in complete paragraphs and graduates from Harvard Law School.

But let’s meet some of the nominees who were blown off the map by President Obama’s miraculous presidency. There is the aforementioned Dr Samar. Now 50 years old, she graduated from a Kabul medical school in the middle of the Soviet invasion. She was forced to flee Kabul for a more central part of Afghanistan, where, though barely into her training she began attempting to treat patients against a background of extreme poverty, war, and harassment by the Taliban, who have virtually criminalised the delivery of reproductive health services to women and girls. In an article for the New England Journal of Medicine she describes having “to walk or travel on horseback or by donkey for three or four hours in each direction” to get to a patient, often finding that she had died before she got there. In her long, but ultimately triumphant career, she has been forced to smuggle birth control supplies under her clothing; she has endured death threats and been jailed; her hospitals have been bombed and looted by Taliban, and her medical director jailed for a year without charges; she was appointed to the Karzai government’s legislature then forced to resign when she was made comments that were critical of sharia law in an interview with foreign journalist.

This is what a hero looks like.

Another quiet hero is Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynaecologist who, according to his Wikipedia entry, works in the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, where he specializes in the treatment of women who have been gang-raped by Congolese militia:

Mukwege has probably become the world’s leading expert on how to repair the internal physical damage caused by gang rape. He has treated 21,000 women during the Congo’s 12-year war, some of them more than once, performing up to 10 surgeries a day during his 18-hour working days.

There’s also the Chinese activist Hu Jia, now doing a three year jail term for attempting to publicize the plight of the persecuted Falun Gong minority.

True, the Nobel Prize was originally created to honour the person or organisation who has “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” But in recent years it has often honored people like Mother Teresa or organisations like Medecins Sans Frontieres for human rights work. (And where was Al Gore supposed to fit in?)

Still, in a way, by ignoring these heroes, the committee may have been on to something. The sad fact is that crusading for womens’ rights in places like Pakistan and the Congo does not bring peace. If you subscribe to the theory that much of the roiling of the Islamic world, the launching of suicide bombers etc. is a reaction by panicked male supremacists to the creeping modernization of women, then “empowering women” with birth control and the like actually, in the short term, encourages war.

So I’m trying very hard to credit the committee with thinking this nuanced. But I keep going back to the thought that patronising attitudes towards the first black president had a lot more to do with it.

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