Sister Orla Treacy is the Principal of the Loreto Secondary School in Rumbek, South Sudan – a beacon of hope in an area where female literacy is estimated to be less than 10 percent, and most girls face strong pressure to stay away from school.
One of the main challenges for Sr Treacy has been to convince local families to send their daughters to a secondary school in a country where only a third of girls enrol in primary school. Of these, just 7 per cent finish their primary education and only 2 per cent make it into secondary education. Less than 1 per cent actually graduate. More than half of girls in South Sudan are married before the age of 18, and 17 per cent before they turn 15.
“If you live in a culture where marriage is more popular than school, it’s very hard to change that mentality. The girl is married for a dowry of cows, so she’s considered a wealth to the family. She’s also the property of the extended family, not just the mother and father.”
The Loreto sisters decided fathers would sign an agreement with the school promising to allow their daughters to complete their education. However, extended family members such as uncles would often turn up at the gates demanding their teenage niece be released for marriage. “We have been threatened at gunpoint, we have been insulted, all number of problems because she is a woman 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 because you’re constantly trying to protect these girls from forced marriage”.
The school’s stellar reputation has created another problem, though, says Sister Orla. “We never have enough places for all the girls who want to come to the school. Last year, we had 190 girls looking to come to the school, and we could only welcome 60 girls. This is always a challenge”.
Educating the next generation is especially crucial in South Sudan, she says, and especially crucial for women. The increase in violence and runaway inflation of the past few years have meant that everyone is in a more precarious place, but it has been worse for women.
For her ten years – and counting – of work in South Sudan, Sister Orla, originally from Bray in Co Wicklow, won the 2017 Hugh O’Flaherty International Humanitarian Award. In presenting the award, Niall Kelleher, mayor of Killarney, Ireland, noted, “In a 2017 international assessment of 178 nations, South Sudan was considered to be the most fragile democracy and the most difficult nation in the world for girls to receive an education”.
Sister Orla was not intimidated by the challenges of the area, but she admits that that may have been because she was not aware of them.
“I actually felt very drawn to the idea of coming here, and working in South Sudan. I had never been to Africa. I didn’t know anything about the life of a missionary as such but there was just some attraction to it. That was ten years ago, and I’m still here. I feel very much at home. There is a massive challenge every day. There is definitely a God-thing in it because I think the whole mission that we have here is one big miracle after another”.
The great work of the school in Rumbek is shaping a new generation of women who will, in their turn, do great things.