It’s been almost three years since Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe last appeared onstage at a Women in the World event, but her work is far from being finished, and she continues striving to improve the lives of girls for whom the future once looked bleak and impossible, all while taking on new challenges as the fallout from South Sudan’s civil war spills into her country, Uganda. The inspiring and affable nun appeared at the second annual Women in the World Canada Summit on Monday in Toronto for a conversation with Diana Swain, senior investigative correspondent for CBC News, telling a story that can captivate any audience anywhere.
Sister Rosemary serves as the director of St. Monica’s Girls Tailoring Centre, Sewing Hope Foundation, a facility that has rescued and rehabilitated more than 4,000 girls who had been forced into membership in a child army run by the notorious warlord Joseph Kony. She is a true hero. The audience in Toronto was shown a video prior to her appearance onstage, which featured some of the girls and women whose lives have been rehabilitated at St. Monica’s. Their stories are downright horrifying. One young woman seen in the video talked about being forced to be Kony’s wife. Kony remains a fugitive on the run after terrorizing Uganda and other parts of Africa for two decades, and international forces have given up looking for him. Sister Rosemary’s work has been critical in mending some of the human wounds left in his awful wake.
“These children were abducted from a very early age, in front of their parents. Some were raped in front of their parents. These children were made to grow with rebels, and taught so many different things … to kill sometimes their own siblings, their own friends. That is a situation I witnessed,” Sister Rosemary explained. “And still I felt lucky because I wasn’t abducted and forced to do what these kids [were forced to] do.” It was because of that sense of good fortune that she began the work that has reclaimed so many lives. “I decided I needed to do something to let these young people grow in a better situation.”
But, she told the audience, these days Uganda is facing new challenges as refugees are fleeing the fighting in South Sudan. More than one million refugees have crossed the border into Uganda and Sister Rosemary is providing sanctuary for them too, welcoming children into her orphanage and building a school near the refugee camps.
As is so often the case for women who are trying to spark genuine change, she encountered gender bias. Last year, she tried to organize a peace conference, “But I’m telling you, I organized this conference out of anger. When you want me to do something about women, you anger me,” she said, prompting laughter from the audience. “If you cause me trouble, I will go forward in a positive way.” But, she said, “I noticed a lot of men were given the opportunity to talk. I did not hear a single woman ask to talk. Not even me! I got angry for three days. And I said, why is it that people don’t want to hear the voice of women?”
After stewing about it for three days, Sister Rosemary explained to the audience, she came up with a way to move past it and give the women a chance to make their voices heard.
Watch highlights from and the full conversation above.
More from the 2018 Canada Summit