And the other Nobel Peace Prize nominees were...

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When President Obama unexpectedly won, he defeated more than 200 proposed candidates. These six are among the most inspirational on that list

Denis Mukwege: Doctor dedicated to helping rape victims

The epidemic of sexual violence in Democratic Republic of Congo visits most of us in the form of statistics, like the 27,000 rapes reported in a single year in a single province, or the 70 per cent of the women of one town who had been brutally assaulted.

The crisis visits Dr Denis Mukwege in a different way. It's there every day in the waiting room of his surgery in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu, the province where the first statistic was recorded.

An average of 10 women come every day, sometimes from hundreds of miles away, having been subjected to some of the worst acts of sadism imaginable. "It is important to point out that this sexual terrorism is done in a methodical manner," the 53-year-old told the US Senate last year. "Generally the victims are raped by several men at a time, one after another; in public, in front of parents, husbands, children or neighbours. Rape is followed by mutilations or other corporal torture."

In a country where sexual violence has reached levels never seen before and that no one can fully explain, Dr Mukwege is the man who has devoted his life to trying to repair the damage done to women often left for dead.

He was, for a long time, the only gynaecologist treating rape wounds in Congo. At the Panzi hospital in Bukavu, he performs as many as half a dozen surgeries a day; so far he has treated 21,000 women. His pioneering work has helped thousands of these women reclaim something of their physical selves and begin to heal some of the psychological wounds.

A pastor's son who saw at first hand the suffering of women in rural areas who would have to travel bleeding on the backs of donkeys when pregnancies went wrong, he decided to become a doctor. After studying obstetrics and gynaecology in Angers, France, he returned to Lemera, Kivu, to set up a clinic.

This effort was burned to the ground in 1996 during the first civil war. After settling in Bukavu to try again, he found that the maternity ward at Panzi was overrun by women who had been raped and that the numbers were growing. Dr Mukwege's response was to set up a ward for victims of sexual violence, and his work was recognised with the Olof Palme Prize last year, when he was also named African of the Year and given the UN human rights prize.

The doctor has repeatedly been asked to explain why the horrors are occurring in Congo but he limits himself to explaining what is happening.

"Here it is not rape because you have desire for a woman, it's rape because you want to destroy that person through her private parts," he said recently. "There is no appropriate expression, because if these were men, were shot by a gun, we would call it genocide. But it is another type of genocide."

Daniel Howden

Sima Samar: Working for Afghan families

Sima Samar has spent her life breaking through seemingly unbreachable barriers. The first Hazara woman to obtain a degree in medicine from Kabul University, she now dedicates her life to the rights of women and children. She is chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and UN special rapporteur on human rights in Sudan. For many years, she would have considered such roles impossible.

She started her work in 1984 after her husband disappeared at the hands of the Communist regime. By 1987, she had opened a hospital for women, and set up clinics and girls' schools. In all, she opened 10 clinics, four hospitals and schools for 17,000, which put her in a perilous position after the Taliban seized control in the late 1990s.

But whatever obstacles she faces, Ms Samar remains determined. "I've always been in danger, but I don't mind," she once told the BBC.

Andrew Buncombe

Ghazi bin Muhammad: Philospher in search of peace

In the wake of 9/11, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad became an increasingly important player in religious dialogue. A philosophy professor in Islamic faith at Jordan University, the Jordanian prince's supporters said he deserved the award because he encourages debate on the relationship between Islam and other faiths.

In 2005, he brought prominent Islamic scholars together to work out a "theological counter-attack" against terrorism, and he is regularly praised for his ability to emphasis similarities between East and West. After Pope Benedict XVI's 2006 lecture that was seen by many as an attack on Islam, the Cambridge-educated prince, left, was among prominent Islamic scholars to sign an influential letter entitled A Common Word Between Us the following year. "Without peace and justice between these two religious communities," the letter read, "there can be no meaningful peace in the world".

Miranda Bryant

Greg Mortenson: Mountaineer fighting Islamic extremism with education

It was a failed attempt to climb K2 in Pakistan in 1993 that set Greg Mortenson on a path that would take him almost to the humanitarian summit of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Exhausted from the climb, recovering in a remote village Mr Mortenson, left, met a group of children sitting in the dirt and writing with sticks in the sand. He promised to build them a school. It seemed, he says, a "rash" promise.

The story of what happened next is told in Mr Mortenson's book, Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time, a bestseller that is now required reading for military leaders as well as for humanitarians. In the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, many say, his work has been transformative. His Central Asia Institute has built 84 schools in the region, educating mainly girls, and Mr Mortenson, 51, has become a tireless advocate of the need to build human relationships with the Muslim world. His mantra: politics won't bring peace, people will bring peace.

"These are secular schools that will bring a new generation of kids that will have a broader view of the world," he says. "We focus on areas where there is no education. Religious extremism flourishes in areas of isolation and conflict."

Born to two American humanitarian workers, during his own humanitarian career he has been kidnapped, shot at, and forced to deal with two fatwas issued against him by local clerics opposed to female education. In 2009 alone, he has been awarded Pakistan's highest civilian award, the Star of Pakistan, and a half dozen other humanitarian gongs but, for this year at least, he failed to land the biggest one of all.

Stephen Foley

Piedad Córdoba: Colombia's 'woman of peace'

A few days before the Nobel Peace Prize winner was announced, Oslo's International Peace Research Institute said the outspoken Colombian senator, Piedad Córdoba, was the favourite for the honour.

According to Kristian Berg Harpviken, the institute's director, her work "eagerly advocating a peace process in her country" made her a major contender. But not everyone loves Colombia's "woman of peace". She has braved controversy, kidnap and assassination attempts for her politics, and her integral role in negotiating with the guerrilla group Farc has stirred both praise and anger.

Her achievements are, however, indisputable. As head of Colombians For Peace, a group trying to put an end to the 45-year conflict between the government and Farc, Ms Córdoba was the government's official mediator in the humanitarian exchange discussions of 2007, and she secured the release of 16 hostages. One former captive, Alan Jara, the former governor of Colombia's Meta state, called her "an angel who could carry me to freedom".

Ms Córdoba's nomination praised her for seeking a solution to the conflict. It has sometimes been a dangerous calling. In 1999, she was kidnapped by paramilitaries before she was freed and exiled, with her family, to Canada. Only 14 months later, she returned to resume her work.

The 54-year-old former lawyer was born in Medellin, Antioquia, in north-western Colombia, to an Afro-Colombian father and a white mother. Her political opponents maintain that she is too close to Farc, and when email correspondence with Ms Córdoba was found on the computer of a now-dead rebel leader, Raul Reyes, she was accused of complicity with the group. Pictures of her meeting with Reyes drew further incriminations.

But, says Ms Córdoba, the conflict will be solved only if the guerrillas negotiate with people they trust. "We have to finish this conflict with words and with dialogue," she argues. "If I have to return to the Farc and have a photo taken, I'll do it again."

Miranda Bryant

Wei Jingsheng: The father of Chinese democracy

For a Chicago community organiser to rise far enough to receive the Nobel Prize is fairly remarkable; had a former electrician at Beijing Zoo been so honoured, the recognition would have been truly extraordinary.

But Wei Jingsheng, above, has come far from that humble beginning: indeed, his nomination this year is the seventh he has received for his work fighting for democratic rights in China. Now 59, Mr Wei was once a convinced ideologue, who served as a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. That view changed as he saw the reality of Chairman Mao Zedong's China, and he became a committed democratic activist, who was jailed for 18 years until international pressure forced his release in 1997.

His prison sentence was for taking part in the "Democracy Wall" movement in 1978, when students and activists displayed uncensored news and dissenting opinions on a brick wall near Tiananmen Square, just as the Red Guards had done themselves in the universities early in the Cultural Revolution. Mr Wei posted an article, The Fifth Modernisation, that became a famous dissident text. "We want to be masters of our own destiny," Mr Wei wrote. "We need no gods or emperors." During imprisonment, he wrote open letters to the regime on toilet paper that were smuggled out and published, making him a figurehead for democratic campaigners. He was released in 1993 but refused to be silenced. That determination led to another jail sentence, this time for 14 years.

But by then, Mr Wei had powerful backers. Bill Clinton intervened, and he was released in November 1997 and allowed to fly to the US on medical grounds, shorthand for exile. His 1997 book, The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Prison and Other Writings, is seen as one of the classics of Chinese dissident literature.

Since those days, Mr Wei has won a string of major human rights awards for his work, and become known as "the father of Chinese democracy". But he is by no means the only Chinese dissident thought to have a chance of the Nobel, an option that may in the end have seemed too controversial for the committee.

Hu Jia has been imprisoned since 2007 for exposing government abuses and the plight of China's Aids sufferers, and Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled leader of China's Uighur minority, has led the fight for minority rights.

Clifford Coonan

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