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Pope says South Sudan’s future depends on treatment of women

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JUBA, South Sudan — Pope Francis warned Saturday that South Sudan’s future depends on how it treats its women, as he highlighted their horrific plight in a country where sexual violence is rampant, child brides are common and the maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world.

On his second and penultimate day in Africa, Francis called for women and girls to be respected, protected and honored during a meeting in the South Sudanese capital Juba with some of the 2 million people who have been forced by fighting and flooding to flee their homes.

The encounter was one of the highlights of Francis’ three-day visit to the world’s youngest country and one of its poorest. Joined by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Presbyterian head of the Church of Scotland, Francis is on an historic ecumenical pilgrimage to draw global attention to the country’s plight and encourage its stalled peace process.

Greeted by song and high-pitched ululation, Francis urged the hundreds of people gathered at Freedom Hall to be “seeds of hope,” that will soon bear fruit for the country of 12 million.

“You will be the trees that absorb the pollution of years of violence and restore the oxygen of fraternity,” he said.

The aim of the ecumenical visit is to encourage South Sudan’s political leaders to implement a 2018 peace accord ending a civil war that erupted after the overwhelmingly Christian country gained independence from mostly Muslim Sudan in 2011.

The head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan, Sara Beysolow Nyanti, told Francis that women and girls were “extremely vulnerable” to sexual and gender-based violence. She said they were at risk for rape when they were just out doing their daily routines and chores.

“If the women of South Sudan are given an opportunity to develop, to have space to be productive, South Sudan will be transformed,” she told Francis.

The pope picked up her theme in his remarks, saying women are the key to South Sudan’s peaceful development, but need the right opportunities.

“Please, protect, respect, appreciate and honor every woman, every girl, young woman, mother and grandmother,” he said. “Otherwise, there will be no future.”

According to UNICEF, roughly 75% of girls in South Sudan don’t go to school because their parents prefer to keep them at home and set them up for a marriage that will bring a dowry for the family.

Half of South Sudan’s women are married before age 18, and they then face the world’s highest maternal mortality rate. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said in a report last year that overall, women and girls here live a “hellish existence.”

“South Sudanese women are physically assaulted while being raped at gunpoint, typically held down by men while being abused by others. They are told not to resist in the slightest way, and not to report what happened, or they will be killed,” the report said.

“It’s hard to convey the level of trauma of South Sudanese women whose bodies are literally the war zone,” commission chair Yasmin Sooka said late last year.

Francis began his day meeting with the priests and nuns who minister to South Sudan’s people, urging them to accompany their flocks by joining in their suffering.

At the St. Theresa Cathedral, he heard of the sacrifice nuns have made over the years, including the 2021 ambush killings of Sisters Mary Daniel Abut and Regina Roba Luate of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart Sisters.

Sister Regina Achan, from the same congregation, said Francis’ visit would encourage other sisters to keep serving the people of South Sudan. “We stand with them because we are their voices, we don’t run away at difficult times,” said Achan.

Francis’ visit, she added, would awaken “serenity and peace in our hearts that we may work for peace and justice in this country.”

Sister Orla Treacy, an Irish Loreto nun who runs a secondary school for girls in the central town of Rumbek, walked for over a week with her students to see the pope in Juba, and scored a papal photo on Saturday. The school makes contracts with the girls’ extended family in which relatives commit to not force the girls to leave school to get married.

“It is still a challenge for young women, but it is changing and the young women are now coming with a vision for what they also want for their country as well,” Treacy said at the cathedral event.

One of her former students, Mary Alual, who is now at nurse, joined the group at the event. “It was a great moment to be in the school,” she said.

Upon arrival Friday, Francis issued a blunt warning to President Salva Kiir and his onetime rival and now deputy Riek Machar that history will judge them harshly if they continue to drag their feet on implementing the peace accord.

Kiir for his part committed the government to return to peace talks — suspended last year — with groups that didn’t sign onto the 2018 accord. And late Friday, the Catholic president granted presidential pardons to 71 inmates at Juba’s central prison in honor of the ecumenical pilgrimage, including 36 on death row.

Francis has changed Catholic Church teaching to hold that capital punishment is inadmissible in all circumstances.

Cara Anna contributed from Nairobi, Kenya.

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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