Answering Pope Francis’s Call to Respect Women in South Sudan

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

After departing the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pope Francis participated in an ecumenical pilgrimage for peace in South Sudan, February 3 – 5, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Right Reverend Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Pope Francis brought a message of hope, reconciliation, and peace to South Sudan, a nation whose people have endured decades of violence and civil conflict. After a nearly 40-year rebellion against Sudan’s government and the establishment of an independent South Sudan in 2011, the new country descended into another civil war in 2013. The brutal war brought an onslaught of mass killings, sexual violence, and other atrocities. 

Though a peace agreement was signed in 2018, the terms have not been fully implemented and the peace process has stalled. The violence plaguing the nation continues and has led to what is still the largest refugee crisis in Africa. According to the United Nations, there are nearly 2.3 million displaced refugees from South Sudan. Additionally, the country has 2 million internally displaced persons due to conflict, insecurity, and other weather-related causes. 

Women and girls in South Sudan, in particular, have been devastated by this ongoing crisis. Tragically, an estimated four-in-10 women and girls in South Sudan have been victims of one or more forms of assault. They are especially vulnerable as conflict-related sexual violence is “systematic” and “widespread,” according to a report by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan. The commission further reported that “sexual violence in South Sudan has been instrumentalized as a reward and entitlement for youth and men participating in conflict.”

While meeting with internally displaced persons on Saturday, Pope Francis called for an end to all conflict and for the respectful treatment of women, who he said “are the key to transforming the country.”

Pope Francis offered encouragement to a crowd of more than 100,000 people who gathered on Sunday to celebrate Mass. “Even though we are tiny and frail, even when our strength seems paltry before the magnitude of our problems and the blind fury of violence,” he said during the homily, “we Christians are able to make a decisive contribution to changing history.”

A group of 60 young people and 24 adults from the Diocese of Rumbek walked more than 255 miles over nine days to Juba to hear and bear witness to this message from the Holy Father.    

And among them was Sister Orla Treacy, whose work and leadership at the Loreto Rumbek Mission are paving the way to a brighter future for girls and young women in South Sudan.  

The Loreto Rumbek Mission includes a co-educational primary school, a boarding secondary school for girls, and a primary health care center. Sister Orla and the Loreto Sisters offer girls between the ages of five and 20 the opportunity to chart new courses for their lives by receiving a holistic education in a safe, supportive, and caring community. 

In South Sudan, where half of the nation’s women are married before they are 18 years old, such opportunities are not often offered. Approximately 75 percent of girls in the country don’t go to school so that their families can arrange a marriage in exchange for a dowry. 

Young women can be auctioned off for cows – which are valued at up to $1,000 each. Those who are younger or seen as beautiful, fertile, and of a high social class, can be sold for as many as 200 cows, while more typically, women are sold for 50 to 100 cows. Some families don’t send their daughters and nieces to school because they fear that the potential for sexual assault and other dangers could lower their value and marriage prospects.

The Loreto Rumbek Mission works to overcome this challenge by signing contracts with parents of secondary school-aged girls that affirm the students will remain in school for four years. Since the establishment of the school in 2008, the mission has grown to graduate approximately 50 to 60 girls in each class, a number that Sister Orla expects to double in the coming years.

The impact of Sister Orla and the Loreto Rumbek Mission’s work is clear. As secondary school graduate, Martha Malok Acingath said, “Support facilities like the Loreto mission educate and empower girls to achieve more and to be the best of themselves. I’m privileged.” 

By offering young women the opportunity to pursue a better future for themselves and for their country, Sister Orla Treacy and the Loreto Rumbek Mission are an answer to Pope Francis’s call to give the women and girls of South Sudan the honor, respect, and appreciation they deserve.