The world of lavish spectacle, worldwide media attention and sumptuous banquets isn’t exactly in Kim Thuy Seelinger’s wheelhouse.
That ends Monday when Seelinger will be wearing a ball gown for the first time in her life. She’ll be doing it in Oslo, Norway, as her friend and colleague, Dr. Denis Mukwege, is being feted as a co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.
Seelinger, invited to the ceremony and banquet by the Nobel Committee, is overjoyed.
There aren’t many days of absolute joy in Seelinger’s job. As director of the Sexual Violence Program at the Human Rights Center at the UC Berkeley School of Law, she spends most of her work week thinking about sexual violence related to warfare and ways to combat it. Her research and technical support work focuses on ways to improve survivors’ access to support, protection and justice.
There isn’t much time to celebrate when so much is to be done. But on Monday, she will make the time.
She will fly Saturday to Oslo with her husband, Dr. Elvin Geng, who does research in HIV and infectious diseases at UCSF, and one of her researchers.
On Monday, the Nobel Committee will honor Dr. Mukwege, a Congolese doctor who treats survivors of sexual violence, and Nadia Murad, an Iraqi Yazidi woman who survived ISIS captivity and who now advocates for justice. They will share the Nobel Peace Prize for, in the words of the Nobel Committee, “their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.”
“This is a first for me, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Seelinger says. “I’m so happy for Dr. Mukwege. He and Ms. Murad are highlighting a violence that people, for years, have not wanted to think about or talk about. It feels good to bring exposure to the issue, bringing it out of the dark.”
The announcement of the award came at a opportune time
There are, in fact, many dark days. And news of the award came at an important moment.
“That was the week of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings,” Seelinger says, referring to the contentious U.S. Senate hearings that ultimately put Kavanaugh on the U.S. Supreme Court. The nomination went through despite serious questions about sexual assault in Kavanaugh’s past.
“It was a crap week. I was feeling despair at my own government’s dismissal of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. I work on this stuff day in and day out,” she says. “I think a lot about what it means for a survivor of sexual assault to come forward as she did. That week felt really heavy. Then to hear about the Peace Prize, that was a real breath of fresh air coming in from Norway.”
Seelinger says she sees many layers of meaning in this year’s Peace Prize winners.
“The Peace Prize is supposed to be given to those who help bring peace. With this award, the Nobel Committee is signaling that conflict-related sexual violence is a matter of international peace and security. The prize says we have to deal with it at both the micro and macro level. Dr. Mukwege and Ms. Murad are two people who really personify that.”
So too does Seelinger.
She didn’t begin her career planning to fight against sexual and gender-based violence.
“You grow up in the world as a woman,” she says. “You know what can happen to you, your girlfriends, your sisters and your classmates. You are acutely aware of it. I didn’t go to school planning to work on gender violence. But it was always familiar terrain. That focus came in my first job.”
After finishing law school at NYU in 2002, her post-graduate fellowship had her providing deportation defense to immigrants who had just been rounded up in New York City after 9/11. Along the way, Seelinger also inherited all of the African clients who came through the busy Times Square office – mainly because so many of them were from francophone Africa and she was the only lawyer on the team who spoke French.
“I ended up handling many cases of female genital mutilation, early marriage and domestic violence,” she says. “I had male clients who had experienced sexualized torture, as well, or had been persecuted because of their sexual orientation. The cases were hard on many levels. But if I could earn my clients’ trust, they would share the nightmares they had lived through. It was hard, but it would eventually help them win asylum.”
A job at Hastings led to fateful meeting with Dr. Mukwege
That work led her to take a job at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at UC Hastings College of the Law in 2007, where she taught clinic students how to represent asylum-seekers fleeing gender-based violence. It was at Hastings that she first met Mukwege. He visited San Francisco in 2010 with Eve Ensler, the creator of the Vagina Monologues. At the last minute, Seelinger was asked to serve as Mukwege’s interpreter during a two-hour panel discussion.
“I did fine for about an hour — until it came to the numbers,” she says. “I’m terrible with long numbers in French. Dr. Mukwege suddenly started rattling off U.N. Security Council resolutions 1820, 1325 … All these long numbers. I wasn’t familiar with the resolutions at the time, so I think I botched them all.”
In 2010, Seelinger came to Berkeley Law to direct the Sexual Violence Program at the Human Rights Center. Focusing on sexual violence in armed conflict and forced migration, she quickly became familiar with not just the U.N. Security Council resolutions Mukwege had mentioned that day at Hastings, but with most of the global efforts and challenges related to their implementation. Her team quickly built an international reputation for both its practical research and its technical assistance to lawyers and judges dealing with sexual violence in war crimes cases.
In 2015, Hissène Habré was on trial in Senegal for crimes committed in when he was president of Chad from 1982 to 1990. Despite ample evidence of sexual violence, Habré had not been specifically charged with these crimes. Experts close to the case contacted Seelinger, urgently asking her to map out possible charges according to the court’s statute as well as international law existing at the time of Habré’s regime.
In part because of the amicus brief Seelinger’s team submitted, Habré was convicted of rape and sexual slavery as crimes against humanity and acts of torture. He was sentenced to life in prison. He’s the first former head of state to have been convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the court of another nation.
Recalling the day she sat in the Senegalese courtroom and heard the verdict, Seelinger’s voice becomes lighter.
“That’s one of the best things I’ve ever done while at Berkeley,” Seelinger says. “It was a real bright spot.”
This commitment to accountability is something Seelinger shares with Dr. Mukwege. In 2014, she and her team were researching challenges in responding to conflict-related sexual violence in five African countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo. They interviewed dozens of police, healthcare workers, lawyers and military judges in the eastern part of the DRC, where armed rebels still ran loose. Their research led them to Panzi hospital in Bukavu, which Dr. Mukwege set up to treat women who had suffered sexual and gender-based violence.
“I interviewed members of Dr. Mukwege’s team. The surgeons. The social workers. The psychologists. The lawyers,” Seelinger says. “They take a holistic approach to sexual violence. It’s so important, because once the survivors’ medical issues are resolved, they have so many other needs.
Seeing the smallest among them a heartbreaking experience
She also remembers visiting the ward where the young children recovered.
“Some were really young. Tiny. Almost babies,” she says. “Dr. Mukwege had had to operate on all of them. I never cry doing fieldwork. But I really couldn’t help it that day.”
In 2015, Seelinger hosted Mukwege at Berkeley for a public discussion about his work and what he sees as the role of medical providers in the fight for justice. She was happy to hear more about the hospital’s growth and the progress Mukwege and his partners were making on local court cases.
“He’s very rare, for many reasons,” she says. “He’s not only and incredibly dedicated doctor who conducts these heartbreaking surgeries day in and day out, but he also understands how his work in the operating room is tied to much larger things as well: emotional health, social reintegration, justice. He is unafraid of engaging the legal system. That’s not common for a doctor.”
Seelinger understands better than most the complications involved in getting justice for victims of these crimes.
“Most survivors of conflict-related violence aren’t getting their day in court. They may want it on some level, some day, but first they want their kids to be safe, they need food on the table. Questions of justice often don’t become a priority until later.
“Crimes of sexual violence are also so stigmatizing. The social costs of saying `This happened to me’ can be so high. In most of the places where I work, survivors just don’t have faith that the judicial system will help them. So many don’t want to come forward. But for those who do, we have to make sure the system works.”
Given his accomplishments, Mukwege’s modesty draws Seelinger’s admiration.
“He floors me,” she says. “He is one of the few people I’ve ever met where the hype doesn’t begin to capture him fully. He’s incredibly, genuinely humble. It’s not an act. Also he is just so brave.”
Mukwege has been an open critic of the Congolese government in recent years, demanding that it do more to protect its citizens from atrocities. Seelinger says Mukwege used to commute from his family home to the hospital daily, but that’s become too dangerous because of risks on the road. After an assassination attempt in 2012, Mukwege has become more cautious. He and his family now live at the hospital compound. He wants to keep working.
In thinking about Mukwege’s security concerns, Seelinger recalls his visit to California in 2015. She, her husband, toddler and a few friends took him to the Marin headlands for a hike along the coast.
“He thanked me after that. He said he hadn’t just walked freely outside in a long, long time,” Seelinger says. “It hit me between the eyes to realize just how much of his life he has given over to his work and all the insecurity and constant motion it brings. His dedication amazes me.”
Seelinger hopes the Peace Prize provides Mukwege with many things, among them peace in his country. If the award brings resources, contacts and even protection as he continues his work, that would be great.
Tuesday will see Seelinger take part in a pair of panels with the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, Pramila Patten, to talk about progress made (and not made) toward accountability for these crimes.
And she is looking forward in particular to Wednesday, when she will attend the opening of this year’s Nobel Peace Center exhibition, “The Body as a Battlefield.” Seelinger helped the curators develop it, drawing from her Berkeley students’ research on historical examples of conflict-related sexual violence and attempts to prosecute it.
She’d love to be able to bring her students with her for the celebratory moments. She’d love them to see their work displayed and to meet those who are doing this work around the world. Not possible.
But she is bringing her researcher, Julia Uyttewaal, with her. And with Uyttewaal getting married in two weeks, Seelinger cashed in some frequent flier miles to bring Uyttewaal’s fiancé along because “I’ve been taking her away so much.”
So it will be a celebratory moment among friends and colleagues. But just a moment.
“When you spend a week interviewing survivors of gang rape or reading about sexual torture, it’s hard,” she says. “It wouldn’t be possible for any of us to do this without colleagues having our backs. That makes this coming week so important. There are so few times we get to celebrate in this field of work. It will be a bit like a reunion to those of us who are linked to Dr. Mukwege or Ms. Murad. Then the next day, we go back to work on the hard stuff.”