At the tender age of 17, Susan* stands tall – strong and resilient against threats of forced marriage. During a recent term break, she was informed that she was to be married upon her arrival home. In her absence, her uncles had accepted 90 heads of cattle as her bride price. With a dream of becoming a doctor and a drive to pursue secondary education, Susan resisted for one week. During this time, she was beaten repeatedly.
The Loreto Girls Secondary School in Rumbek in South Sudan, an MCC partner, supports girls like Susan through a school feeding and peacebuilding projects. The Loreto Peace Club consists of 24 Loreto students who are supervised by two teachers. Every year, the Peace Club undertakes several outreach activities to provide trauma healing and peacebuilding resources for the girls at Loreto, and the community at large.
During the academic year, a trained counselor who is a former Loreto teacher, well-acquainted with challenges facing the girls, visits the school for one month to provide individual and group counselling sessions as needed. The counselor has noted that many students show significant signs of despair due to threats of forced marriage.
In the local culture, the bride price for a bride is paid by the brothers of her betrothed. When the couple’s first daughter is born, her life is held ransom as her future bride price will be used to repay the investment made by her uncles.
The tensions between a girl’s desire for education, for choosing when and whom she should marry and for her uncles’ desire to recoup their investment is the source of a lot of conflict for girls at Loreto and their families. In some cases, the conflict can become generational. The Peace Club provides girls with tools in conflict resolution to help them handle this conflict in a healthy manner.
“Being in the Peace Club has helped me a lot to deal with my own peace problems,” says Elizabeth*. “When I lost my mother, a conflict broke out between my father’s family and that of my mother…My father had not paid her bride price. It became a big problem until my father stopped talking to my grandfather. This disturbed me. One time I shared it during our peace Club activities. From these [activities] I got new ideas on how to solve the problem and I have been talking to my dad and my grandfather about it. Now the problem is being solved.”
It is important to share things that trouble us because not everyone gets to know what we are going through unless we are willing to share it with them. This training has helped me learn a lot, and I intend to teach others who haven’t had the chance to learn.
For many girls, it is very important to have a safe space to talk about these issues and to discuss their feelings. The Loreto Peace Club facilitates this by offering Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) sessions for students. HROC is an approach initially developed in Rwanda to help communities heal from trauma. In a recent HROC session at Loreto, Susan and other girls facing threats of forced marriage were able to learn skills to heal from their trauma, and to build their resilience.
Anna* explains that HROC sessions helped her learn about different typ0es of traumas, their causes and how to heal.
“I have learned that good listening can help overcome situations before they become worse,” she says. “Above all, I have also learned how to overcome the loss, grief and mourning that is common in our society, since people are blinded by hatred and revenge. Sharing our problems with a few trusted ones is another thing I learned. It is important to share things that trouble us because not everyone gets to know what we are going through unless we are willing to share it with them. This training has helped me learn a lot, and I intend to teach others who haven’t had the chance to learn.”
After graduating, more than half of Loreto’s students enroll in post-secondary education (52 per cent), or work for NGOs and local ministries (31 per cent). In recent years, graduates have enrolled in an internship program at Loreto where they receive two years of work experience as trainee teachers and nurses and as assistants in the finance, administrative, logistics and development offices.
Upon completion of the internships, they receive scholarships for training as nurses, doctors, teachers and lawyers. Internship placements are especially reserved for girls facing threats of forced marriage since they live on the Loreto compound and are protected from these threats during their internships.
While they face many challenges, girls at Loreto receive comprehensive support throughout and after their secondary education. This allows them to develop into young women empowered to promote peace and positive change in their society.
Top photo: Students walk to Loreto Girls Secondary School. Photo courtesy of Paul Jeffrey.
*Names were changed to protect the privacy of the girls interviewed.
Candacia Greeman is an MCC service worker serving as an education specialist at the Loreto Girls Secondary School in Rumbek, South Sudan.