Fr Kevin Hegarty
RS Thomas, the Welsh poet, wrote once of a woman, ‘whose pale face was the lantern/by which they read in life’s dark book/the shrill sentence: God is love’.
The description suits Sr Orla Treacy, who was recently one of ten recipients of an International Women of Courage Award at a ceremony in the White House in Washington, DC.
Since its inception in 2007, the awards honour women who have shown exceptional courage in working for peace, justice, human rights and gender equality, often at considerable risk and sacrifice. US diplomatic missions nominate a ‘woman of courage’ from their respective host countries. The US Ambassador to the Vatican, Callista Gingrich, nominated Sr Orla.
Sr Orla is a 46-year-old Loreto sister who grew up in Kerry and Wicklow. Having completed her Leaving Certificate in the Loreto Convent in Bray in 1991, she studied theology at the Mater Dei Institute where she qualified as a teacher. She taught in Cork, Letterkenny and at St Muredach’s College in Ballina.
She spent the summer of 2004 working with the Loreto sisters in India. It was the catalyst that led her to becoming a Loreto sister herself a year later.
In that year the religious order discerned the need to establish a new mission in Sudan. Sr Orla was inspired to join it. As she said later, “I actually felt very drawn to the idea of coming here and working in South Sudan. I had never been to Africa. I did not know anything about life as a missionary as such, but there was just some attraction to it.”
South Sudan is fertile territory for the mission of social justice. A land-locked area in East Central Africa, it is the world’s newest state, established in 2011. It came into being through an agreement that ended Africa’s longest tribal civil war.
Independence, however, did not bring peace. Another civil war broke out in 2013. Almost 400,000 people have been killed in new conflict. Last September a new peace agreement was signed but it was very fragile.
South Sudan is a most distressed country. Young women are often forced into marriage and experience sexual abuse and domestic servitude. Maternal mortality is the highest in the world. In a revealing statistic a 15-year-old girl is more likely to die in childbirth than to finish secondary school. Up to 10 percent of babies die before they are three months. Unemployment is at a high of 90 percent. Over half the population have no access to medical services, which helps account for the prevalence of witch doctors. Thousands teeter on the brink of starvation. There are only 200kms of tarred roads in a country ten times the size of Ireland.
A recent UN report is a 200-page litany of horrors. It states that ‘rapes, gang rapes, sexual mutilation, abductions and sexual slavery, have become common-place in South Sudan’.
In the midst of this heart of darkness, Sr Orla and her sisters have shone a beacon of light. When they arrived in South Sudan in 2006, influenced by the plight of girls who were being forced into early marriages, they started a boarding school for girls, enrolling 35 students. The mission has expanded hugely in the last 13 years. It consists of three core programmes, a community and co-educational primary school for 1,200 students, an all-girls boarding school for 300 students and a woman-and-child primary health centre, which deals with up to 1,600 consultations every month. Their ministry proves the truth of the Trócaire slogan that love can conquer fear.