Rotary International Past Vice President Dean Rohrs’ life-long quest for equality and peace has taken her many places, including prison!
By Kylie Hatfield
South African-born humanitarian Dean Rohrs has championed change for women and girls around the world for decades, having dedicated her life to improving opportunities for those carrying the scars of injustice and discrimination.
“Be it hunger, lack of water, lack of education, lack of diversity, lack of opportunity, disrespect – these are all things that scar. It’s our duty to soften those scars, to take them away, so people don’t see or feel their scars anymore,” Dean said.
Dean traces her humanitarian instincts back to the 1960s, when, as a 15-year-old in Zambia, she witnessed what she describes as “…the first time I had to face man’s inhumanity”.
Dean was helping her mother move refugees out of their town in Zambia, when conflict erupted in the Congo. She greeted a plane that had landed carrying 30 nuns from a convent that had been attacked by the rebels. The nuns had been repeatedly raped and had their hands amputated.
“When that plane door opened, I was confronted by what nobody in the world should see. Not a child of that age. Nobody,” Dean said.
It was this experience that drove her towards her life’s mission of fighting injustice. A few years later, while attending university in Johannesburg, Dean joined the banned African National Congress Party and was arrested and imprisoned for demonstrating against the apartheid.
“This was another experience that forced me to think, again, about what one man does to another man. And why? I kept asking these questions. Why? Why does this happen?” said Dean.
“I have always fought for my people. My people is every people, not just white or black. It is every human being. And, of course, who are the people who suffer most? They are the women and the girls, even in privileged society.
“And that’s what drove me when I really started working with Rotary.”
Dean’s focus on programs and projects that support women and girls led to her being involved in AIDS education, immunisation programs in remote villages in Africa, and the establishment of a girls’ school in Malawi, where more than 560 girls have graduated with the highest honours in the country.
But it is the small, personal projects that Dean is most proud of being involved with.
While participating in a National Immunisation Day in northern Nigeria, Dean saw a need for two wells to be built, and a third – that was providing water to three villages – in need of restoration. Young girls were trekking for kilometres multiple times a day to source water for their neighbouring villages.
Being able to personally fund this work and provide access to water for so many people, as well as reduce the impact on the young girls, fills Dean with a great sense of pride.
“That changed the lives of those little girls, that community. That I am proud of. Yes, I’ve been involved in building cancer hospitals, in doing huge endeavours like that. But there’s a different satisfaction when something is personal,” she said.
“The tiny little programs, they’re the ones that just really touch me.”
While Dean has dedicated her life to helping others, she admits that Rotary has given her just as much in return.
“Rotary has been the vehicle that has made me reconcile many things and settle down and find peace internally, because it’s a weapon I have to make a change in the world. Through my programs and projects, I now have the power to bring relief to the people I touch, where I didn’t before.”
Having been a member of Rotary since 1989, Dean has experienced the organisation at every level and in multiple countries. After emigrating to Canada with her husband and children in 1990, she started a Rotary club that was focused on being inclusive and diverse. She also climbed to among the highest ranks in the organisation, serving as a director and then vice president of Rotary International from 2017 to 2018. And she continues to champion women at every step.
“My greatest joy in being a director and then vice president was to find that being female was never, ever, an issue. I was respected for what I brought to the table; I was involved and had equal opportunity,” Dean said.
“Rotary has focused on developing a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture. This has been the backbone of my life; something I’ve fought for from a very early age.”
Dean is now a member of the Rotary Club of Langley Central, in British Columbia, Canada, alongside her grandchildren, and feels very passionately that Rotary needs to embrace the changing times and be more inclusive.
“The time has come for Rotary to redesign, redevelop, and to embrace today and tomorrow and stop looking through the rear-view mirror,” she said.
“I think that’s my calling beyond the trustee; to try and motivate and show that change isn’t harmful; change is exciting. Change takes you beyond yourself, and suddenly you realise you are a much better person than you thought you were.”
Dean Rohrs is one of many great humanitarians whose stories will inspire you at this year’s Zone 8 Conference, September 11-12. Register now at rotaryzone8.org