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Women religious foster healing and reconciliation in South Sudan

Weaving peace one step at a time

 Weaving peace one step at a time  ING-011
15 March 2024

It’s been a year since the ecumenical pilgrimage of Pope Francis to the war-torn country of South Sudan. The process of healing and reconciling after years of trauma is still in progress, and women religious are playing a significant role in it.

Deep wounds of young South Sudan

South Sudan is a very young nation: it was born on July 9, 2011 after decades of civil war. When a peace agreement was signed in January 2005, the war had left almost 5 million people displaced and 2.5 million dead, with a legacy of deep-rooted distrust among rival ethnic groups.

In January 2011, the historic referendum for the independence of the South took place despite mounting challenges. But when the Republic of South Sudan was born amid shouts of joy on July 9, the wounds of mistrust and fear were far from fully healed.

Religious women serving in the new-born nation were aware of this setback, and have been instrumental in promoting peace initiatives.

Beacons of hope

Since 2010, the Catholic Health Training Institute ( chti ) of Wau has fostered intercultural dialogue and helped students, both male and female, overcome deeply rooted prejudices.

It was set up by Solidarity with South Sudan, a joint venture of women and men religious, and has developed residential trainings for teachers and nurses and given special attention to food security, pastoral formation, and trauma healing. The Institute’s first graduation ceremony took place in 2013, and by 2022 chti had graduated 181 trained nurses and 87 midwives.

Sr Brygida Maniurka, a Franciscan Missionary of Mary from Poland, has worked at chti since February 2022. “Our students come from different tribes, States, religions, and speak different languages. chti constantly emphasizes respect for all cultures and tolerance of differences. Through various activities and exercises we forge bonds of friendship and promote peace and unity. Besides nursing and midwifery, our students learn the art of building relationships and working together,” says Sr Brygida.

She says that accompanying the students on their journey of growth takes many hours of dialogue, “but what a joy to see their transformation after three years!”

“And our joy is even bigger when we hear words of praise about them from their home community and from the institution where they work,” adds Sr Brygida.

When pain becomes care

In Yambio, another initiative devotes special attention to traumatised women.

Sr Filomena Francis, known as Sr Bakhita, is from Nzara, a little town in Western Equatoria. She first lived in Khartoum, where almost 5 million South Sudanese were seeking refuge, before reaching Egypt and joining the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception ( mfic ).

In 1995, before leaving for Papua New Guinea, she managed to visit her family in what is now South Sudan. By then, the area had been conquered by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army ( spla ) and her family and sisters were in good condition. But by 1999, sexual violence and abuse by soldiers had made their lives miserable.

The drama suffered by Sr Filomena’s family inspired her to start a counselling and trauma healing programme. This materialised in 2006 with Adeesa (Women) Support Group Organization ( asgo ), started by Sr Filomena and two other women.

In 2013, a community of mfic was opened in the Catholic Diocese of Tambura Yambio, and Sr Filomena started training local women and men to become actively involved in the healing programme.

She says she was inspired by the history of South Sudan. In 1964, all missionaries had become eye witnesses of the violence inflicted on civilians by the Khartoum government and were expelled with little notice. Despite the situation, the Catholic Church in the area continued thanks to Sudanese bishops, a few local priests, and many lay catechists.

Then, in 2016, a new outbreak of violence stormed Yambio and its surrounding areas, causing further suffering to the people and even to Sr Filomena’s family.

“My own trauma as a child led me to start this programme. The pain and the loss that my family and I continue to go through encourages me to serve in this programme,” says Sr Filomena. “I believe that a holistic approach to trauma healing in South Sudan will lead to sustainable peace and will save the lives of many women, girls and also young men who have been raped to punish their ethnic group,” she concludes.


By Sr Paola Moggi, smc