SÃO PAULO, Brazil – A Chilean nun who’s worked with imprisoned women for 25 years, and who recently won a prize inspired by Pope Francis’s vision of human fraternity, says she hopes the honor will call attention to the issue of protecting the human dignity of people behind bars.
“It will help us to keep fighting to restore the lives of so many people deprived of liberty, especially women,” said Sister Nelly León. “But we have to invite more people for that task. That’s a problem that society as a whole needs to address.”
The cause of ministering to inmates is one León takes seriously indeed. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, between 2020-2021, the Chilean penal system was closed to visitors. León decided that she would remain with the prisoners at Santiago’s female prison, remaining there for 18 months without being able to leave.
León is among the 2024 winners of the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity, which recognizes individuals and institutions that promote peace, understanding, and solidarity.
León was honored along with Egyptian-born heart surgeon Magdi Yacoub, who created a foundation that offers free-of-charge medical attention to vulnerable people, and two major Muslim organizations in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, recognized “for their respective roles in the humanitarian field, as well as their peacebuilding efforts at the national, regional, and international levels.”
The prize was established in Abu Dhabi in 2019 when Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. The honorees receive $1 million for their projects.
Past recipients include Pope Francis and Al-Tayeb, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, Moroccan-French activist against extremism Latifa Ibn Ziaten, and Kenyan peace mediator and community mobilizer Shamsa Abubakar Fadhil.
The award ceremony took place on Feb. 5 in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
A member of the congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, Nelly León established the Fundación Mujer Levantate (Rise Up Woman Foundation), which helps female prisoners when they are serving time and works to reintegrate them in their communities after they leave the penal system.
After more than a decade working with vulnerable women in poor neighborhoods of Santiago, León began to assist inmates in 1999 in Valparaiso. She soon realized that those young ladies needed somebody who could listen to them and guide them through a process of deep healing and decided to pursue graduate studies in psychospiritual attention.
She also realized that most women would go back to their previous lives of crime if they didn’t have adequate opportunities. Facing several challenges, she created a shelter for inmates who had been freed along with Father Alfonso Baeza, which is how Fundación Mujer Levantate began.
Over the years, León has become a well-known advocate for the rights of prisoners in Latin America and has been constantly denouncing the continuous violations of their rights in a region notorious for overcrowded, unhealthy, and violent penal facilities.
“In Chile, there is nowadays a higher awareness of the fact that it’s the poor people that are in prison. More Catholics, including members of the clergy, are committed to those people,” León told Crux.
But in society as a whole there is a “deep desire that more and more people go to jail due to a general feeling of insecurity,” she added.
“Few people believe that a person who has been deprived of liberty deserves a second chance and can be rehabilitated and reintegrated,” she said, saying that abuse and violence are common in the lives of most of the women she works with and are many times the cause of their wrongful actions.
León laments the fact that religious assistance is not available to the inmates in all penitentiaries, something that she considers to be a duty of the Church.
“That’s something that we owe those men and especially those women,” she said.
“We have a challenge to stop imprisoning people and to release the imprisoned with precautionary measures. We have to ensure that people serving their time can study and work. We have to promote their dignity,” León said.
The Zayed prize will be very useful in her struggle against mass incarceration in Chile, she added, and will help to give visibility to the tough reality of the female prisoners.