Papua New Guinea: Sisters struggle against forced marriage and child trafficking
By Reinhard Backes
“Forced marriage is a major problem in Papua New Guinea. Girls are sold when they are only 13 or 14 years old. We want to help to change this tradition.” This is how Sister Maria del Sagrario described the work of her Institute in the Diocese of Vanimo at a meeting with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). In that remote and poorly-developed region in the north-west of Papua New Guinea, the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará (SSVM) operate a hostel for young women. According to Sister Maria del Sagrario, 19 girls between 13 and 19 years of age are living there at present. They were sent by their parents, who want to protect their daughters from the traditional form of forced marriage. ACN supports the initiative: the hostel in Vanimo is currently undergoing considerable enlargement because at the moment it does not offer sufficient space for either the girls or the sisters; up till now the sisters have only had one single room for their use.
(Girls learning to sew at the "Lujan Home for Girls")
In the words of Sister Maria del Sagrario, even today large areas of Papua New Guinea are little developed; ancient traditions remain alive, such as the custom of selling underage girls to men for marriage. Payment is often in the form of pigs or other domestic animals. This practice is also frequent among the faithful. “Although Christians are numerous, the culture of the country is still far away from the influence of the Gospels,” says Sister Maria. For the sisters there is only one answer to this: Christian education, especially for girls.
(On the right: Sister Maria del Sagrario)
The religious Institute, Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará, was founded in Argentina in 1988. Some Matará sisters lead contemplative lives and devote themselves exclusively to prayer in order to support their fellow sisters who concern themselves with social, charitable and pastoral initiatives. Through their withdrawn lifestyle, entirely devoted to serving their neighbours, they seek to remember the women who accompanied Jesus Christ until His death and who kept vigil beneath the Cross. The sisters wear a crucifix on their breast which, alongside the figure of the crucified Christ, also displays numerous symbols. It was carved in the late 1500s by a member of the Matará tribe, native peoples in the north of Argentina in the vicinity of today’s city of Santiago del Estero, who were evangelized by the Jesuits. At present, 6 Matará sisters are working in Papua New Guinea.
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