An Irish nun who has been working to educate girls in South Sudan for the past eleven years is among the recipients of this year’s U.S. State Department International Women of Courage awards.
Orla Treacy, a Loreto sister from Bray, Ireland, was invited in 2006 by the Bishop of Rumbek to open a girls’ boarding school. She had joined the Loreto Sisters in 2005, after working for a summer in Kolkata after college and witnessing the dire poverty there.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, along with First Lady Melania Trump, awarded the annual International Women of Courage Awards to ten women from around the world, including Treacy, at the State Department March 7.
Treacy told the Irish Times last year that after she arrived in the region that was then part of Sudan in 2006, it took two years to get their boarding school building actually constructed. The diocese where she arrived, according to a 2017 article from Catholic Ireland, was “the size of Italy but with just two [high] schools.”
Treacy said she also faced challenges convincing the local community to enrol their daughters in her school, in a country where less than one percent of girls graduate high school.
More than half of girls in South Sudan are married before the age of 18, and 17 percent before they turn 15, according to the Loreto sisters’ website. Ninety percent of women in South Sudan are “functionally illiterate.”
“If you live in a culture where marriage is more popular than school, it’s very hard to change that mentality,” Treacy told the Irish Times.
“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.”
South Sudan voted to gain independence from Sudan in 2011, but a subsequent civil war that began in 2013 has left millions displaced and hundreds of thousands hungry. Though the two sides signed a peace agreement in September 2018, the country’s Catholic bishops recently expressed concern that the agreement is bound to fail, because the root problems of the conflict have not yet been addressed.
Today the school Treacy founded and is principal of educates around 200 girls per year.
“I work with people who live very much on the margins: life and death, hunger and despair. Every day they live on the edge. And yet in that you can still glimpse love and hope every day,” Treacy told the Irish Times in January 2018.
In his remarks at the award ceremony, Pompeo praised Treacy’s school as a “beacon of hope for girls who would otherwise be denied education, and be forced to enter early marriages.”
“Women of courage exist around the world; most will never be honored,” Pompeo said. “They face different challenges, but challenges that still matter.”
Among this year’s other awardees is “Mama Maggie” Gobron, a Coptic Orthodox woman who left behind a life of financial success to found a ministry to help children growing up in Egypt’s squalid slums. Her organization, Stephen’s Children, has helped 30,000 families with food and clothing over 25 years, according to the organization’s website.