By Linda Bordoni
Loreto Sister Orla Treacy is a remarkable woman.
Thanks to her work to protect and to empower some of the most fragile and vulnerable people in the world, she was chosen this year to receive an International Women of Courage Award at the State Department in Washington.
The award honours “women around the world who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in acting to bring positive change to their societies, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.”
Originally from Ireland, Sr Orla was in Rome in October to participate in a Symposium hosted by the US Embassy to the Holy See demonstrating how governments, civil society and individuals can be more effective in fragile communities and regions by partnering with women religious working on the frontiers.
She came to Vatican Radio to tell us about the secondary boarding school for girls that she has set up in one of the most dangerous places for girls on earth: South Sudan.
The world’s youngest nation erupted in civil war just 2 years after winning independence in 2011. Almost 400,000 people have been killed in the violence, millions have been displaced and the oil-rich country’s economy has been shattered.
When I met Sr Orla she had just come from the “Women on the Frontlines” Symposium during which she shared her experience with a woman religious from India and another from Nigeria.
Frontiers and peripheries, she said, are not only geographical places, but internal places as well, but for the three sisters it was very much talking about physical places, places that are vulnerable and fragile.
“South Sudan has become one of those countries that are vulnerable and fragile, and sadly a dangerous place and a challenging place for many to live in,” she said.
So deeply does Sr Orla identify with the South Sudanese girls who attend her boarding school in the town of Rumbeck, that when I asked her about the “Woman of Courage” Award, she said she thinks of it as “a collective award for us as a school”.
“We were very privileged and honoured to get the nomination from the American Embassy to the Holy See, there were 10 awardees from all over the world; we travelled to Washington and I received the Award on behalf of the many Women of Courage that I work with,” she said.
The School in Rumbeck
Sr Orla told me that as Loreto sisters in Ireland, they received a very clear invitation to begin a girl’s boarding secondary school, a project that came to life in February 2006, in a town where girls are not educated.
“When we arrived in a town of 30,000 people, there were about 10 girls in secondary school,” she said.
Since then the school has developed and grown. From the 35 girls attending in 2008, today there are 291, and 90% of them are going on to university and graduating from there.
How the country has changed in the past 13 years
Sr Orla explained that when the sisters first went to Rumbeck in 2006, it was part of Southern Sudan. It was the second year of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between north and south, and it led to the 2010 referendum in which 99% of southerners voted for independence.
“It was an incredible experience: that sense of parents waiting for a baby to be born would parallel. There really was a sense of a new baby being welcomed,” she said, adding that it was a time of great joy.
The most illiterate country in the world
Part of the new nation’s challenge is the fact that South Sudan is the most illiterate country in the world, Sr Orla said, and perhaps many “were blinded to the road ahead”.
Pointing out that the country has oil and that there are many countries that are interested in the oil, she expressed her opinion that perhaps the structures were not in place to help support the new country, and after only two years, disagreements between the President and Vice President led the country back into a new civil war.
She described it as a painful journey, “from hope and peace and joy and expectation into the reality of today” where “In a country the size of Italy, we are 11 million people, 4 million are displaced and nearly 7 million are hungry”.
Fortunately, she said, “our mission is with young people and I think whenever you work with young people you always taste hope and that has kept us very focused.”
These young women want to be the change in their country
Sr Orla says the school in Rumbeck has “become a mission of hope and these young women want to be the change in their country”.
She explained the school is much more than just a school; for the girls in remote Rumbeck it is also a women’s refuge: “These girls are able to escape the pressures of forced and early marriage, and sadly that is on the increase as the war continues and as poverty and hunger have crept more and more into their lives.”
She revealed that in South Sudan, statistics would show that only 1 % of girls are able to finish school and she pointed out that most of the girls at the Rumbeck boarding school are the first girl in their family to be graduated.
She pointed out that the school is also bringing about a change of mentality as the girls are seeing their peers who graduated from the school getting jobs, getting paid positions and contributing back to their families, who are also beginning to see the value of education and beginning to believe “that girls can contribute to the building of the family”.
“And for young people coming to our school today there is great hope expectation that they can do great things for their community as well,” she said.
While Sr Orla admitted there is much concern for her students whose life, outside the boarding school, is rife with danger, she said that there is also the sense of “having the privilege to witness these remarkable young women who want to push the boundaries and want to make a change”.
Helping pave the way to peace
South Sudan is an overwhelmingly Christian nation, but its inhabitants are ethnically divided.
“South Sudan has 64 different tribal groups. We do try to unite them [the students] to give them more of a sense of national identity rather than of tribal identity. We try to get them from different areas of the country and bring them together,” she said, which is another way to pave the way to peace.
“The girls learn one another’s cultures, one another’s dances, identifying and understanding. We have girls who come from different feuds, their brothers are killing one another, yet at school they can be best friends, and that gives me hope for the future of South Sudan,” she said.
‘Women of Courage’
Sr Orla, who is as tall and striking as the Dinka women she lives and works with, said that it is her dream that one day she will sit in the hall in Washington and watch one of the graduates take the prize of Woman of Courage.
She noted that the government, in its peace agreement has given 35% of positions to women, but sadly only 19% of women in the country are educated: “So my dream and my hope is to see more and more young women take their place in society, contribute to the development of their families, to peace-building in the communities and also to take positions of leadership in the country”.
Recalling the historic meeting Pope Francis hosted in the Vatican last April with the leaders of the nation, Sr Orla described his decision to kiss their feet as an extraordinary act.
“In South Sudan a big man, a leader, cannot bend low in front of another. A woman can, but a man cannot. So to see the Pope do that in front of the many leaders of South Sudan was huge for the girls,” she said.
Noting that part of their education is learning other values, and the Christian values of forgiveness and love, mercy and peace, “What he did that day,” she concluded, “spoke more words than I could say in a year”.