In South Sudan, cows are often worth more than women, but young girls there, helped by Irish Loreto Sisters nuns, are changing attitudes slowly. “It’s the cows,” says Sr Orla Treacy, “When a girl gets married she is married in exchange for cows. It is still a daily challenge. There are still issues around families not wanting their daughters to be educated.”
Just over half of all South Sudanese girls are in arranged marriages by the time they reach 18. A 10th of all girls are married off when they are just 15. And the pressure comes not just from men. Aunts and elders often believe that a daughter needs a good marriage early. “If she’s 23 years of age and she’s still studying, she is already past it,” says the Irish nun.
Today, 49-year-old Sr Orla is the director of a primary and secondary school and a healthcare centre, in Rumbek, northwest of the capital, Juba: “We have been threatened at gunpoint, we have been insulted, all number of problems because [they are women] and should be sacrificed for the sake of the greater good. Technically it’s a boarding school, but I call it a women’s refuge.”
In the beginning, the Loreto nuns encouraged local fathers to pledge that they would let their daughters finish school, says Sr Orla, who has served in Rumbek for over 17 years. However, extended family members such as uncles would often turn up at the gates of the school demanding that their teenage niece be released for marriage.
She sees hope, though. Now, it is the girls themselves who are demanding the right to be educated: “In the early years, we were the ones having to push it a bit, but less and less now do we have to. We support them, we walk beside them, but they generally can do it themselves now,” the nun, who is from Bray, Co. Wicklow, tells The Irish Times.
In an effort to help newly arrived students to stay the course, the nuns pair a new girl with a second-year student who minds her during her first year. In turn, the second-year “mother” student is paired with a third year “grandmother” student. If the new student faces pressure to quit, then her school ‘family” will sit and talk to her about whether she wants to marry or stay in school. “They become a huge panel of support,” Sr Orla says.
There is no lack of employment when they qualify. One of the clinic’s nurses is now her family’s main breadwinner: ‘No one is now forcing her into an arranged marriage,’ says the Irish nun
In recent months, the South Sudanese civil authorities have published legislation to stop early forced marriages: “They want all boys and girls in school. They want to build up education. That is huge for us,” says Sr Orla, who has had to reject heavy criticism that education is taking young women away from traditional Sudanese culture.
Three Irish nuns, including Sr Orla, were invited in 2005 to set up the Rumbek school by an Italian bishop who was then in charge of the diocese, who wanted to empower young women: “He was very clear: he had the plans, he had the donor, he just needed the congregation to come and do it,” she recalls. Today, it has 360 girls from all over South Sudan.
On to university
Locals were unhappy because their own daughters were not able to go to the school as they had no primary education, so in 2010 the sisters started a primary school. Today, it has 1,400 boys and girls and is also a teacher training school. In 2016, the nuns added a health centre, staffed by Kenyan nuns. Today, it has two clinical officers, one midwife, and three nurses. In August, they served 5,000 patients.
Secondary school graduates have gone on to university – often up to 12 per year – and come back as teachers, or nurses. However, many graduates are now “getting good jobs with NGOs. NGOs are always looking for young women to work with them.
When she got there, she found an empty field, not the buildings promised by the bishop. It took two years to get the buildings up
There is no lack of employment when they qualify. One of the clinic’s nurses is now her family’s main breadwinner: “No one is now forcing her into an arranged marriage,” says the Irish nun.
Sr Orla never imagined then she would end up in charge of a school in a war-torn state in east Africa. When she first told friends and siblings that she wanted to become a nun, they told her she was crazy: “I thought I was crazy too. I realised it wasn’t fashionable or popular to become a nun at that time. I talked to one of my [four] brothers and he told me to travel the world and then see how I felt.”
We are still within a war mentality, so insecurity is still a big reality for us. When we harvest, we only harvest enough for a few months and by January everything is gone. That’s when the hunger comes— Sr Orla Treacy
So she did. She studied to become a religion teacher at the Mater Dei Institute in Dublin. Following her final year there, she worked with the Loreto Sisters in Calcutta in India, where she was appalled by the poverty. Having returned to Ireland, she taught religion in the Presentation Brothers in Cork City, but two years on she “realised that life wasn’t for me” and instead became a nun.
Having accepted the invitation to come to Rumbek in 2005, Sr Orla set off telling her family she would be home by the end of the year. When she got there, she found an empty field, not the buildings promised by the bishop. It took two years to get the buildings up. Four years later, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan. Four years after that, the country was ravaged by civil war that left two million people displaced.
Hunger remains a huge problem: “When we started the primary school we used to feed the kids, but now we feed everybody,” she says, though famine is not “an immediate” concern. Next month, though, will bring challenges: “We are still within a war mentality, so insecurity is still a big reality for us. When we harvest, we only harvest enough for a few months and by January everything is gone. That’s when the hunger comes.”
‘A great team’
Right now, she thinks she is probably the youngest of the 150 Irish Loreto sisters, who have an average age in the early 70s. Honoured frequently for her work, notably by President Michael D. Higgins, who gave her a Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad, Sr Orla stays sanguine about awards: “I’m not big into that kind of thing, but we’ve a great team.
“If this is going to help to promote the mission in terms of donors, then do it and keep smiling.” That’s the mantra, she says, adding that Rumbek is “an incredible story” and “extraordinary journey. So, to be part of that and to be able to be a face for it at the moment, to ensure that we can continue the work, is an important thing for us.”