The news from Uganda has long included horrific tales of child soldiers, kidnappings and sexual violence–the evil work of the fugitive warlord Joseph Kony: while amassing his extremist group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), he has terrorized the country for 25 years. Chilling accounts of displaced families, brutal killings by rebels and commanders, and sex slavery emerge from Uganda with numbing regularity.
But amid the seemingly endless swirl of death and violence, an astounding woman has stepped up and changed the narrative. A Catholic nun, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, has begun to help the battered country heal by rescuing some of its most vulnerable citizens: the young girls captured by Kony’s rebels forces.
The director of St. Monica’s Girls Tailoring Centre in Gulu, Nyirumbe had a simple vision—take in the girls who were abducted by Kony, forced into sex slavery, and eventually escaped from captivity. Then, teach them skills, and give them a reason to keep living. The girls take basic courses on dressmaking, sewing and cooking, but the long-term mission is to help them integrate back into society and transform their lives. “These children were called night commuters but the international community knows them as the invisible children,” Nyirumbe said at the Women in the World salon in Texas last year.
Nyirumbe began her mission in earnest in 2002, when many kidnapped girls were coming out of captivity. She explained that society—and in some cases the girls’ own families—feared the escaped captives. “Everybody believed that the children were brainwashed,” she said. So she made an announcement on the radio inviting the girls to come to the school as they were—no matter if they had been abducted, were pregnant, or had children. Sister Rosemary never expected that she would open a school to train mothers, but once that was the case, she knew one thing: She wanted the girls and young women to love the children that had been conceived during the rapes by their captors.
Gradually, a childcare center evolved under the trees, where the girls learned to nurture their children and develop homemaking skills. Interestingly, throughout the girls’ recoveries, Sister Rosemary never once questioned them about any of the atrocities they were subjected to or witnessed.
“You need to open your arms and embrace them and allow them their time to mourn and weep and accommodate their pain,” she explained, noting that teaching someone how to love is all but impossible, but the power of compassion can set a foundation on which love can be built.
Sister Rosemary has faced down rebels herself a few times. Many of them have paid unwelcome visits to her school and tried to force the girls to return to them as their wives. The intrepid nun has stood her ground and told the extremists to leave because there would be no marriages and certainly no dowries.
And if she ever comes face to face with Kony, she knows exactly what she’ll say to him. “I will say ‘I forgive you,’ but I will let him know the fact that I am raising his children and that the women and children he captured are the greatest winners of this war; they fought back in this war using their hands, needles and sewing machines and they are living in dignity and are above the war,” she said.
Even the work and skills the girls are adopting are symbolic. Aside from sewing clothing and decorating cakes for the holidays, the girls make purses from pop tabs, which are collected by a group in the U.S. called “Pros for Africa.” Sister Rosemary calls it making treasure out of trash. “The women I am working with were once considered trash and in order to give them hope I decided to use the analogy of the needle and sewing machine. Putting the pieces back together,” she said.
Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe will be appearing at the Women in the World Summit in New York City on April 23. Purchase tickets to the event here. To donate to Sister Rosemary’s “Small Things” scholarship, click here.