The healing power of work: Sister Rosemary and Joseph Kony’s girl soldiers

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe has changed the lives of more than 2,000 girls in Uganda through the “healing power of work.” She recently shared her story with attendees of the Woman in the World Summit in London.

Sister Rosemary runs a vocational training centre in Gulu for female victims of violence. She is the director of St. Monica’s Girls Tailoring Centre, which organises training programmes for girls who have been affected by conflict. Many of the girls at the centre are victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

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The LRA is a notoriously brutal rebel group led by Joseph Kony in Northern Uganda. Since the 1980s LRA have abducted young people from their villages and forced them to commit unspeakable acts of violence. All too often the targets are young girls who Sister Rosemary said are “doubly disadvantaged” because they are also coerced into sexual slavery for the satisfaction of their male captives and other male fighters.

Female victims who manage to escape from the bush can be met with hostility by their communities, as they are feared as being violent. The victims often come home with children, as a result of rape, and therefore are shunned for being unwed.

The centre is designed to be a safehaven for the girls and a place where they will find reassurance that they will be supported. The St. Monica’s Girls Tailoring Centre offers the girls an environment of acceptance: “We offer our arms saying, ‘Come as you are in this centre, and we will make you get healed,’” said Sister Rosemary.

“It’s not easy to love children got from sexual violence. But we help these girls love their children.”

Sister Rosemary (pictured below on panel, second from left) encourages the girls to “sew away the pain” and to “not dwell on the past. There is a future. We can work in hope.”SIster Rosemary

Sister Rosemary started the initiative in 2002 to teach the female pupils at the centre how to make purses out of recycled bottles and cans.

She explained: “My whole emphasis is on putting trash to treasure. This is very significant for me. These girls were once considered as trash, but you can see how beautiful they are now.”

Sister Rosemary has future plans to expand the work of the centre, such as providing long-term education for the girls.

Former child soldier

Polline Akello, a former child soldier (pictured on panel, second from right), shared her experiences of being abducted in 2002. She told the Women in the World Summit attendees that she spent seven years in the bush and was given as a wife to an older male soldier.

She witnessed the horror and sexual violence inflicted by the LRA, including the murder of her best friend.

“I have seen young children giving birth and dying at the point of giving birth, together with their children. I have seen women running to escape and giving birth at the same time,” she recalled.

During her time there she was injured and permitted to attend a hospital, where she made her escape.

Reflecting on her experiences she said: “All the years that I was spending in the bush, God was working with me. Life continues. The past is the past. So my focus is, I have to make sure that life continues, that I continue moving with life.”

After her return Akello met the man who had abducted her, but decided to grant him with forgiveness: “I decided in my heart of forgive him and take him as my own brother,” she said. “Because I believe that he was forced into abducting me.”

Rebuilding lives

Also speaking at the Summit was Agnes Igoye, Deputy National Coordinator of the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons in Uganda (pictured on panel, far right).

She agreed with Akello’s decision to forgive her abductor and supported the notion that many LRA soldiers are in fact coerced into committing such acts. She said: “Why can’t you forgive someone who did something they didn’t want to do?”

Igoye works with female survivors who escape the LRA, to help them build new homes and to rebuild their lives: “It’s not just about building houses. It’s about spreading a message of peace and forgiveness,” she said.

“The women have to be part of the process. They collect the water, they collect the grass, and they do it with joy.”

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