TORONTO (CCN) — Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe is determined to teach women how to stitch their lives, torn by war and slavery, back together again.
Nyirumbe, of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus based in Juba, South Sudan, spoke in Toronto Feb. 9 about her 20-year fight to restore the lives and dignity of women who were kidnapped as children and forced to become child soldiers by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by warlord Joseph Kony.
Nyirumbe spoke at Roy Thomson Hall of the war that has ravaged northern Uganda for decades, which has “disadvantaged women and children in the worst way,” she told The Catholic Register. She also spoke about her plan of action, based in education, at a vocational school where women become self-supportive by learning practical skills such as sewing. She calls it “restoring dignity through work.”
Nyirumbe’s talks, part of the Unique Lives series, is titled Sewing Hope in Uganda.
When the LRA rebels began battling government forces more than two decades ago, many children were abducted and displaced from their homeland, said Nyirumbe, named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2014.
“To make it worse, these children were trained as child soldiers.” Girls “were valued more because they were turned into sex slaves (and) trained also as child soldiers.”
Many captives were taken to South Sudan, some dying on the way. Those who survived were afraid to escape, afraid to be killed.
“Some were also killed by their own friends. Their friends who were forced by the rebels to kill them,” she said, a tactic by the LRA to keep the kids from running.
The number of children who disappeared can never be known, she said, but years after captivity, many have escaped.
“Society did not accept these children easily,” said Nyirumbe, because after being abducted, they were “forced to commit atrocities in their communities. Some were forced to kill their own siblings and their own relatives . . . they were totally brainwashed.”
But the girls and women who returned were doubly disadvantaged. Many young women dropped out of school, she said, “because of culture, a culture which favoured boys to girls. The girls were always left behind.”
In the middle of the LRA’s war, Nyirumbe was sent by her superiors to visit a school for women that was meant to teach 300 students; it only taught 30. One girl, who isolated herself from others and did poorly in school, drew the nun’s attention. Nyirumbe learned that this student was kidnapped, sent to fight on the frontlines and rose to be a commander with the rebels, but eventually escaped.
“She was uncomfortable in the presence of everybody. For that, I decided to befriend her, to bring her closer to me,” she said.
Nyirumbe offered the student an opportunity to learn more practical skills, and the student went on to excel in school. Other students asked for the same opportunity.
“This for me was an eye opener. First, to try a process of rehabilitation through activities, through education, also accepting these girls as they were. It prompted me to make a radio announcement to other girls. I told them, if there are girls out there who have been in captivity and would like to come to study, we are ready to open the door and open the school. You come and you study in our school,” said Nyirumbe. She encouraged them to come as they are, even if they were pregnant or needed to bring their children with them. “That year, I received 250 girls.”
Nyirumbe now runs the St. Monica Girls Tailoring School in Gulu, Uganda. It is supported by profits from the book Sewing Hope written about her and the girls she helps. If people don’t want to read the book, which shares the same name with a documentary about Nyirumbe’s work, she hopes they purchase it anyway so that their children can read it.
“We must show them (women) love and care in order for them to be able to bring the future generation,” she said. “We need a lot of support in improving finances because if I am mending lives, if I have to give rehabilitation . . . there is a lot of financial involvement in this.”
She wants her audience in Toronto to know “that it is very important for us to aim at giving support and restoring dignity to women and children in Africa . . . I always tell people, let us not think we can save the world by thinking we’re going to support 100 women or 300 women. I always say start with one woman and one child at a time. It is a way of restoring the dignity of one woman and of course . . . helping her to be self-supportive means you are helping a family, means you are helping a woman to help the children. It means you are helping a future generation.”
For information on Sewing Hope in Uganda, visit uniquelives.com. To donate to the St. Monica Girls Tailoring School, visit prosforafrica.com.