Pope Francis joined other Christian leaders and the U.N. on Saturday in urging the protection and advancement of women in South Sudan, where rape has been a weapon of war, child brides are common and most girls do not reach secondary education.
The rights of girls and women was a recurring theme on the penultimate day of the pope’s visit to South Sudan, an unprecedented joint “pilgrimage of peace” with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Church of Scotland Moderator Iain Greenshields.
“Please, protect, respect, appreciate and honour every woman, every girl, young woman, mother and grandmother. Otherwise, there will be no future,” the pope said during a meeting of the three leaders with people displaced by conflict.
Later, Welby returned to the theme in his address to about 50,000 people at an ecumenical prayer vigil at a mausoleum to South Sudan’s liberation hero John Garang.
“Young men, you will value and honour women, never raping, never violent, never cruel, never using them as if they were there to satisfy desire,” he said.
“Women of South Sudan, I know that on top of the grief of conflict and the responsibility to provide for your families, many of you live with the trauma of sexual violence and the daily fear of mistreatment in your own homes”.
A United Nations report on South Sudan issued last March condemned widespread sexual violence against women and girls in conflict and said it was “fuelled by systemic impunity”.
The report said “widespread rape is being perpetrated by all armed groups across the country, often as part of military tactics for which government and military leaders are responsible”.
South Sudan broke away from Sudan in 2011 but plunged into civil war in 2013 with ethnic groups turning on each other. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, bouts of inter-ethnic fighting have continued to kill and displace large numbers of civilians.
At the event where the three religious leaders heard accounts from children living in displaced persons camps, the resident U.N. humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, Sara Beysolow Nyanti, also raised the issue of pervasive sexual violence against women and girls.
The pope responded by calling on everyone in South Sudan “to ensure that women are protected, respected, valued and honoured”.
Francis said that if women are given opportunities “they will have the ability to change the face of South Sudan, to give it a peaceful and cohesive development!”
Sister Orla Treacy, an Irish member of the Loreto Sisters religious order who runs a school in Rumbek, north of the capital, and works to prevent child marriages, said less than 5% of girls finish secondary school. About 10% of 15-year-old girls and 52% of 18-year-old girls in South Sudan are married, she said.
Treacy and a group of students had walked about 200 km (125 miles) from Lakes State to see the pope. She said the governor of that region had recently signed a decree promising to stop child marriages.
South Sudan has the world’s highest maternal mortality rate, according to the World Bank, and poverty and hunger are rife across the country, with two thirds of the population needing humanitarian assistance as a result of conflict as well as three years of catastrophic floods.