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 of three days 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. Women, girls and children make up the majority of those displaced.
The encounter was one of the highlights of Francis’ 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 a historic ecumenical pilgrimage to draw global attention to the country’s plight and encourage its stalled peace process.
The aim of the three-way 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.
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 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, with U.N. statistics estimating some four out of 10 have been victim to one or more forms of assault. She said women and girls were at risk of 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 were the key to South Sudan’s peaceful development.
“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 percent 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; 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.
Maria Nyataba Wur, a displaced woman now living in Juba who attended Francis’ event, told The Associated Press that one of her neighbors was raped in front of her children, so violently that she limped for days afterward.
“They tied her legs apart, and then three people entered her, raped her,” Wur said, adding that she lost track of the neighbor during her own efforts to flee to safety in the capital.
Mariam Nyantabo, a 36-year-old resident of a Juba protection camp, said women were grateful for Francis’ visit.
“The plight against women is shocking,” she said, noting that the risk of rape comes from everyday chores like collecting firewood. “His visit is blessed to women of South Sudan, and I believe there will be a great change, the suffering of the women will be reduced.”
Welby, too, addressed the plight of women during his remarks at an ecumenical prayer service later Saturday. He praised their “incredible” strength “on top of the grief of conflict.”