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Sister Rosemary’s Faith

The Ugandan activist and nun helps children recover from the trauma of war.

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe in Gulu, Uganda

When I meet Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe at the Gild Hall Hotel restaurant in downtown Manhattan, she is radiating warmth and hugs me right away, like a new friend. The Ugandan activist and nun is in town to attend the sixth annual Tina Brown Women in the World Summit headlined by Hillary Clinton and attended by global women leaders and change-makers. They are in excellent company. 

Named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2014, Sister Rosemary continues to receive praise for her inspiring efforts to help women and girls in Uganda rebuild their lives after the brutal civil war. Twelve years ago, she started the St. Monica Girls’ Tailoring Center in Gulu, Uganda, to teach trades to women and girls, many of whom are refugees of war, former child soldiers and sex trafficking victims.

Her most popular campaign is the pop-top purse, which she’s taught the students to make out of the tops of aluminum cans. She sells them around the world and all of the proceeds go to the students, giving them not only the ability to take care of themselves, but a restored sense of self, hope and purpose. Sister Rosemary’s work with women and girls is the source of a documentary and a novel, both titled, Sewing Hope.

Her decision to open the school grew out of heartbreak and absolute necessity for these girls.

“My background is that I’m a midwife. But after awhile, I started thinking, ‘How long am I going to keep on bringing children into this world when there is so much suffering?’ I wanted to do something to help.” Sister Rosemary wanted to become a doctor in order to help more people, but with the war ravaging her country, medical school was out of the question. She vowed not to let the war stop her from fulfilling her God-given purpose.

“These girls lacked the chance of education. They’ve been abducted by rebels, trained as child soldiers, and also became sex slaves and suffered so much,” she says. “Having been a victim myself of that war, I felt that I could do something to help young women who are more disadvantaged than me.”

“If they can survive what they’ve survived, I can give them the compassion, that love and acceptance they need,” she says. “I can employ all of my intellect and I can employ the love God gave me to give them.”

Though she’s accomplished much for women and their children in her life as a nun, the powerhouse is far from done. An ally to Nigerian activist Obiageli Ezekwesili, who co-founded the Bring Back Our Girls movement to save the 200 women and girls kidnapped in Nigeria last year, Sister Rosemary is a leading voice against their abductors, the Boko Haram terror group. For Sister Rosemary, what’s happening in Nigeria hits far too close to home. Everything Boko Haram is doing to women and girls, the National Resistance Army began in Uganda in the 90s.

But just like the victims of that war, the world seems to have forgotten the kidnapped girls who have still not been returned. Sister Rosemary is determined to keep their names on people’s minds so action can be taken to find them.

“It’s very important for us to keep on raising that awareness,” she says, her voice overflowing with passion. “That’s why I admire [Ezekwesili] forever and I took part in profiling her [for Time’s 100 Most Influential People 2015]. I will keep on reminding everybody that whatever happens in humanity is never new. You may think what happened in Nigeria is just there, or is old news. That’s not right. The same people who say that said the same thing about Northern Uganda when the National Resistance Army were very actively abducting women and children and destroying them. People have not been talking about it and it continued for decades.”

“The media should have a broad span of attention, because what is happening in Nigeria can happen in the United States. What happened in Uganda can happen in the United States. When we talk about the rights of women, when we talk about women being destroyed, women being looked down upon, it happens right here [in America]. So it’s a global problem. We must understand this is something that affects everybody, it affects humanity.”

When speaking out as a woman can be a death sentence, Sister Rosemary encourages women to use their voices however they can. The nun, who has stood eye to eye with a rebel who came to kill her and the other nuns—and later helped him run away from the rebel troops—says, “We don’t know how powerful we are as women. We can move mountains.”

It’s her faith in God that lights a fire behind her voice, even in the face of grave harm. “If any moment I feel I am in danger, I say, ‘God, even if I have to go in the valley of darkness, you have been there already. And so I am protected. I can fight through that fire. If my life is put in danger, I pray that I see God in my enemy and he sees God in me and won’t harm me. But if not, that’s God telling me, ‘You have done your part.’ But at least I’ve made my contribution.”

She saves her final words to encourage me. “You are a young woman, but you must know you are very powerful,” she says. “I want to encourage you to speak. Speak up! Stand up! Man cannot destroy you because you speak. What can they say? You have a loud mouth? Fine! Let’s go on with our loud mouths,” she says with laughter, then she envelopes me again in a hug.

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