An Irish nun teaching in South Sudan has said that almost 1,000 children are waiting for a place in primary school at her mission alone, and the civil war in the country has forced a third of the population from their homes.

The Loreto girls' secondary school in Rumbek in South Sudan's Lakes State was founded by the sisters in 2008.

Sister Orla Treacy was among its founders. She had been assigned to Sudan two years earlier with four other nuns from the congregation.

Their objective was to establish a mission in a diocese the size of Italy which had only two secondary schools.

She says that they also call the boarding school a women's refuge because there is so much pressure on teenage Sudanese women to agree to forced marriages.

She said: "52% of eighteen-year-old women in the country are married, in most cases because they were forced to wed."

Sister Treacy said that the Rumbek mission is currently building a wall around its school to deter relatives of the pupils from browbeating them into leaving to marry.

She said: "A relative will arrive and say to the girl 'a man has promised us 100 head of cattle in return for your hand in marriage'. But we remind the family concerned that it had agreed with us to leave their girl at the school until she had completed her studies. We say we are going to abide by that agreement and support their daughter."

She said South Sudan has the highest rate of illiteracy in the world and is the most difficult place for women to secure an education.

"If you educate a woman, you educate a village," she said, quoting an African proverb which informs the Loreto strategy at the mission.

The South Sudanese are turning to education to cope with the trauma inflicted by four years of civil war.

Sister Treacy said even in Rumbek, teenage males are much more prone to settle squabbles with firearms than at any time in the country's troubled past.

Of its 12 million population, two million have fled abroad while almost two million more have been internally displaced.

The demand for primary school places has subsequently been escalating in places where the internally displaced seek refuge, such as Rumbek.

This impacts on the primary school Sister Treacy also helped to establish.

"You could not provide enough places. At the beginning, we had 50 students; that grew to 200 and now we've 900. We could take 1,800 tomorrow if we'd he space and funding to do it," she said.

"The economy has collapsed and half the population depend on food support," she said, adding that rampant inflation has devalued her teachers' salaries one-hundred-fold, rendering the families of school staff dependent on the mission for sustenance.

The sisters also run a nutrition project which provides help to both permanent and transient residents.

In the midst of the wartime horror, there's a ray of hope for Sister Treacy in the form of alumni of the secondary school returning from university, qualified to teach in their alma mater.

"We'll also see our first cohort of primary pupils graduate this year," she said.

Sister Treacy is in Ireland to receive the Annual Monsignor Hugh O'Flahery International Humanitarian Award which will be presented in Killarney, Co Kerry tomorrow evening.

She becomes the tenth recipient of the honour which was instituted in memory of the Killarney priest who was dubbed the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican for his highly risky humanitarian exploits during the Nazi occupation of Rome. 

During the course of the Second World War, he was instrumental in saving the lives of more than 6,500 anti-Fascists, Allied escapees, Jews and many others by hiding them from the Gestapo in a number of safe houses throughout Rome. 

Msgr Hugh's humanitarian activities pre-dated the war and he was honoured by the governments in Haiti and the Dominican Republic for his work there during the 1930's.

For Sister Treacy's father, now in his nineties, the ceremony will be a homecoming of sorts as he served as the County Secretary in Kerry some decades ago.