Educate Women to Amplify Peace Voices Worldwide, Activists

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In Summary: The voices were unanimous in supporting efforts to give women a voice through education to empower them as effective peace builders in the world.  Leading the global rallying call for women education, humanitarian and peace builder, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe from Gulu, Uganda, together with two other panelists; Nikiya Natale, an Immigration Attorney with the Refugee Services of Texas, and Mu Naw Di, a-17-year-old high school student immigrant from Myanmar, fielded questions from Robyn Short, the moderator, on how women can effectively enhance efforts towards world peace.  As Samuel Muwanguzi writes, this was during the   16th annual conference of a world of women for world peace organized by Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, Texas recently.

The three panelists; Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, Nikiya Natale, and Mu Naw Di

Dallas, Texas—the consensus towards the education of women as a global empowerment strategy to enhance their voices in building world peace was overwhelming at the 16th annual conference of a world of women for world peace in Dallas, Texas recently. “Through education, women will be empowered enough to wield effective voices  that will no longer be ignored in peace building efforts around the world as the situation is today,” Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, an international  peace builder and a Catholic Nun of the order of the Sacred Heart of Jesus based in Gulu, Uganda, led the rallying call.

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson the convener of the conference

The world of women for world peace conference, organized by Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of the 30th District of Texas, which attracted hundreds of peace activists and women-rights advocates across the country, took place at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center of Dallas, Texas recently. Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, a renowned humanitarian who constituted a panel of three women rights activists including Nikiya Natale, an Immigration Attorney with Refugee Services of Texas and Mu Naw Di, a-17-year-old high school student, a recent immigrant from Myanmar, fielded a variety of questions from Robyn Short, the moderator at the conference. 

Ms. Robyn Short, the moderator at the conference

Drawing from their diverse and unique experiences, the three panelists weighed-in on how women can contribute to peace in the world.   Fielding the first question, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, A Nun since 1972, told the conference of her childhood and status as a girl in a family of  eight siblings: “I was the seventh of 8 children and the fourth girl in the family and I was given the  name Nyirumbe which means ‘Gods are invisible’,” she said in her opening remarks to her diverse audience which displayed a remarkably astonishing attention each time she took to the microphone to respond  to a question from Robyn Short, the moderator.

A cross-section of the conference participants listening to Sister Nyirumbe

“In the Pajok society of the Alur in Nebbi district, she disclosed, women and girls are left behind the boys and are given no opportunities to excel.”  But, she asserted, “if given a chance, they can succeed in life even better than boys,” a comment that drew prolonged approval. Sister Nyirumbe disclosed that as a girl child, she never experienced peace in her life because she was born during conflict and was sickly during the turmoil that stalked her childhood. “At 8 years, my family fled from our home near the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) boarder to hide in the bush when an armed conflict broke out in that country.  While in the   bush, I developed pneumonia and nearly died. It was a childhood of turmoil and sickness,” she said with loathing nostalgia.

Turning to the dehumanizing effects of the conflict in Northern Uganda on women and girls, a pet subject she has eloquently articulated in multiple international forums, Sister Nyirumbe regretted that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels of Joseph Kony targeted girls who they abducted, turned into sex slaves; wives of rebel commanders, and fighters or carriers of loads for rebel soldiers. “When I was assigned to manage the Monica Girls’ Tailoring Center in Gulu in 2001, I confronted the rebels and told them that they could not fight and win a war against the government by targeting and abducting innocent girls as fighters and sex slaves,” Sister Nyirumbe, whose courageous actions at the risk of her life spiraled her Humanitarian and peace efforts to international fame told the peace conference in Dallas.

Sister Nyirumbe is famously known for openly confronting Joseph Kony and his rebels during their reign of terror in Northern Uganda when she demanded that they stop their dehumanizing fighting methods and release the girls they had captured and taken as sex slaves. As to whether there is a definite figure that can be assigned to the number of girls who were abducted by Kony’s LRA rebels, she said: “I do not know and I think no one knows the exact number of girls who were kidnapped by the rebels. We all just estimate.  Most of the girls were killed during the war, some drowned crossing rivers, others got lost in the bush and died, while many died of diseases and in child birth,” she said with regret in her voice.

Recounting one such incident that reflects the enduring trauma the conflict in Northern Uganda has inflicted on some of the rescued girls, she told her attentive audience that at one time, a rescued girl told her that she was forced to kill her sister who had failed to cope with the rigors of the life in the bush. “I feel I killed myself,” she said the rescued girl told her and added, “I am haunted up to now,” she recounted the girl’s story to the audience.

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe told the conference that when she was appointed director of Monica Girls’ Tailoring Center in Gulu in 2001, she started welcoming girls and their children who had escaped from rebel captivity or rescued by the army.  She said that these women were abducted as young girls, raped, tortured and forced to become rebels and kill their own family members. “The rebels had removed and robbed these young girls of their human rights, their self-esteem, livelihood, social safety nets, and their future by raping and impregnating them who become mothers of rebels’ children,” she said. She said that these returning young women and their children were rejected and stigmatized by society; were left behind by government; were let down by men; and their societies completely turned their backs against them. Besides, “as women, did we stand together?” she queried, adding, “What happened was and is still real and could happen again,” she said.

The biggest gap in the lives of these returning women was lack of love and peace and the failure by their society to comfort them, Sister Nyirumbe observed. She advised that as peace loving citizens of the world, men and women need to work together, be present,  and show our respective faces in peace roles.  “When I was appointed the Director of St. Monica Girls Center, I welcomed these returning women and their children and told them that I was going to be their mother. I gave those children and their mothers a place to live and be loved. I knew that if they were loved, they could also love their children. But there was a gap because they had never been loved. So, they could not be role models to their kids if they did not have any role models, people who loved them. And that is the gap I have tried to fill over the years;  a modest contribution I have made; to love them since society stigmatized them when they escaped from captivity and returned to their villages or were rescued by the army,” she stated with a self-effacing  tone in her voice.

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe amused her audience when she disclosed that she has been accused of being gender insensitive because whenever she speaks about giving a voice to a woman she is misunderstood as someone who unfairly favors women over men or girls over boys. “Yet, whenever I talk about giving a voice to women, I am advocating for a mother who is a mother to both girls and boys. When you give a voice to women, you are empowering both girls and boys without discrimination. So, when I allow women to come with their children, either boys or girls, to study and live at the center, they speak with one voice and everything is in harmony,” she said.

She told the conference that she was compelled to stop admitting boys to the center who were returning from the bush because the first batch she admitted started acting as bosses. They were mistreating and ordering around fellow returnee girls and women to do chores for them as if they were either their house girls or wives. Having detected that behavior, I stopped admitting boys to the center and transformed it into an exclusive home for returning mothers and their young children,” she said to shouts of approval from the audience.

She challenged the audience to get involved in peacemaking efforts by giving a voice to all women through education because it is a liberating tool. Sister Nyirumbe said that for women to participate in international forums such as the Women for World Peace Conference, the world needs to listen to their voices. For example, she said, “those young women who survived the LRA war have a story to tell and they need someone to listen to them,” adding, “it is not about speaking English but articulating experiences that help towards world peace.” To elaborate her point, she disclosed that as a trained midwife, she once helped one of the rescued girls to give birth to a baby. “Because in our culture we give names to babies based on prevailing circumstances, after helping one girl to deliver a baby whose father she did not know, I asked her to suggest a name for the baby. To my astonishment, the girl replied immediately; ‘Peace’. What can you say about Kony whose rebels had abducted you? I asked the young mother. ‘I want him to be forgiven. We want peace,’ she said.”

While peace sounds like a dream, dreams can be realized as long as equal opportunities in education are given to both boys and girls, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe told the conference. “Without equal opportunities in education to both girls and boys, peace will not be possible,” she declared. However, Sister Nyirumbe observed that:   “To bring peace in the world, the most realistic strategy is to build peace by piece because total world peace cannot be achieved at the same time.”

Appraising the conference about another women rights campaign she is conducting   in Uganda, Sister Nyirumbe disclosed that there are hundreds of women in prisons in Uganda serving their terms with their innocent children. “Why should jailed women go with their children to prisons or be held with their children when they give birth while in jail? This is a struggle that I have waged for the last five years and I am still engaging the government about this problem. I have taken out some of the women and their children from prison but I still have a long way to go. The government must stop this practice because it criminalizes innocent children and perpetuates the violation of rights of mothers,” Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, a Catholic Nun and an international peacemaker lamented.

Starting off with one sewing machine as a director of Monica Girls’ Tailoring Center in Gulu in 2001, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe has since given hope, a home, and skills to more than 2,000 young women. She allows women to study with their children and provide education to those denied the opportunity because they are mothers.  “Yet, when mothers and children study under one roof,    there is a greater chance for peace to prevail in society in future,” she observed. Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe is one of TIME's 100 most influential people of 2014 and was a CNN Hero in 2007. 

 Robyn Short, the moderator, turning to Ms. Nikiya Natale, an Immigration Attorney with Refugee Services of Texas, asked her to share her experiences regarding the role of women in building world peace.  Ms. Nikiya Natale, with eloquence typical of “learned friends”, said “people are fleeing their motherlands because the World today is at war.” She observed: “Women have no role in starting conflict yet they are the biggest victims. So, women have a role to play in resolving conflicts and finding solutions to stop or at least ensure that conflicts do not start.”

Serving refugees from all over the world, Ms. Nikiya Natale specializes and focuses on the undocumented population in the United States. She also arranges English as a Second Language (ESL) services for refugees and their children who come from countries where English is neither an official or national language nor a medium of instruction in schools. Ms. Nikiya Natale disclosed to the conference that   out of the 65 million refugees worldwide, over 8500 refugees are seeking resettlement in the United States this year.

The eloquent Nikiya Natale won several admirers at the conference. 

Giving a thumbs-up to her diverse refugee clients, she said:” My clients impress and intrigue me by the nature of stories they tell; stories of horror and the feasible solutions they propose to resolve conflict and restore peace.” Yet, she regretted that women refugees are isolated, domesticated, tortured, and their voices ignored. “We have a duty to all women to ensure that peace exists. We are all citizens of this world regardless of sex and nationality. Diversity is not something that should be shunned but embraced as strength,” Ms. Nikiya Natale declared.  As Americans, the articulate attorney stated, “Our pride is that we are a free country that welcomes all people from all over the world.”

She went bare knuckles against the pervasive bigotry; retrogressive rhetoric against Muslim, Hispanics, and other minorities. “I am not afraid of speaking out against those who peddle hatred,” Nikiya natale declared, adding, “Peace building requires courage and a Change of our mindsets through education to move forward,” she said. Regretting that her clients are getting so worried when they constantly listen to such vitriolic rhetoric, Ms. Nikiya natale advised that “let our collective vision be a world of peace.”

Mu Naw Di, A 17-year-old high school student at City of Dallas high School told the conference that as women; we should always remind men that “without women, no men can be there.” A recent immigrant from Myanmar and vice chair of the Youth commission, Dallas District 9, she recounted her horrific experience while fleeing her motherland across the forested Border with Thailand where Thai soldiers patrolled the porous border hunting, capturing, and killing any Burmese refugee they lay their hands on. 

Mu Naw Di alongside board member Jolly Kahunde Amooti

“While we were hiding in the forest and my mother was boiling water for tea at night, we saw a flashlight from a torch and my mother quickly poured the water into the fire to extinguish the light so we could not be seen, captured, raped, and killed, Mu Naw Di recounted with horror. She said they were lucky because they were not found and that is how they survived.  “But many of the refugees were killed in the forest and especially children died of diseases and hunger while most women were raped and others died during childbirth,” she regretted.

Raised together with her 6 siblings by a single mother as her father had died when she was only 3 years, Mu Naw Di observed that it was ironical that they had to hide from light and survive under the cover of darkness yet it is light that is supposed to bring light and hope but as refugees, fleeing conflict, light was their enemy and darkness their friend. “It is because of the suffering and death that I experienced while fleeing my mother country that I am here to advocate for peace to end the violence that is all over the world,” adding, “as women, we are all vulnerable to the effects of conflict and I am in this struggle because I want to contribute towards peace in the world,” Mu Naw Di stated.

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson with Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe

However, she said that to change the world and build peace, women cannot do it alone but working together with men, peace can be realized. “I want to study law and nursing, become a lawyer, a nurse, and a missionary for peace.  I want to have a voice like my fellow panelists, especially, like the organizer of this conference, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson,” Mu Naw Di said to which she received the longest applause from the audience. 

While responding to a question regarding why participation of women and men critical for peace equal, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson said: “Let’s make women participation in political, social, cultural, and economic affairs of their countries a constitutional matter.” She said that the United States has reduced barriers   against women participation    in their national affairs around the world by using VOA & Radio Free Europe.

“Peace is everybody’s business; it should be inclusive with dialogue applied to educate people about the importance of those who bring life into the world, women, and set our priorities right by bringing peace to the world,” Congresswoman Johnson told the conference. She said that women need to encourage one another to   take their destiny in their own hands, build on efforts of other women, and to value themselves. “I get offended when women sound like ‘I am a mere woman’, an attitude that should be banished,” Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson declared. 

She thanked her staff at her Dallas office that made the conference possible. Among the sponsors of the conference were McDonalds, AT &T, Mary Kay, and others.

The humanitarian work by Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe has drawn the attention of Bill and Chelsea Clinton, Forest Whitaker, and other high-profile supporters around the world.  Approximately 250 girls and 250 children are currently living at St. Monica Girls’ Tailoring Center. 

St. Monica Tailoring Girls' Center in Gulu

Sister Rosemary also oversees a second school in Atiak, in Northern Uganda. Her inspiring story is told in Sewing Hope, a documentary produced by filmmaker Derek Watson and narrated by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, and a book of the same title co-authored by Reggie Whitten, co-founder of Pros for Africa, and professional writer Nancy Henderson.

At the end of the conference, Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe was mobbed by members of the audience including a group of Ugandans living in Dallas who attended the event. She also signed autobiographies, and did brisk business selling hand-made ladies handbags made by girls at St. Monica’s Center from soda can covers.

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