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, and child brides are standard.
The nation’s maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world.
Francis called for women and girls to be respected, protected and honoured during a meeting in the South Sudanese capital Juba. “Otherwise, there will be no future,” he said.
According to the UN, some 2 million people have been forced by fighting and flooding to flee their homes. Women, girls and children make up the majority of those displaced.
The Pontiff is in South Sudan on the second leg of a six-day trip that started in Congo. Both countries have been crippled by poverty, conflicts and what the pope called a “colonialist mentality” that has exploited Africa for centuries.
This is Francis’ first papal visit to South Sudan since it gained independence from neighbouring Sudan in 2011.
The country’s state of affairs remains fragile. While the civil war ended in 2018 after warring leaders agreed to a ceasefire, conflict still drives people from their homes.
The head of the UN mission in South Sudan, Sara Beysolow Nyanti, told Francis that women and girls were “extremely vulnerable” to sexual and gender-based violence, the intergovernmental organisation estimates some four out of every 10 have been victim to one or more forms of assault. She said women and girls 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.
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.