Inmates call her “mother”: meet the nun who cares for female prisoners in Chile

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With these words, Sister Nelly León of Chile received the 2024 Zayed Award for Human Fraternity.

2024 Honoree, Zayed Award For Human Fraternity

Six years ago, Pope Francis visited the prison where I have been serving for the past 20 years as a Good Shepherd Sister. There he reminded the women that while they are deprived of liberty, they are never deprived of dignity.

Her vocation to serve the vulnerable was born while working at a school in Chile. There, she witnessed the rape of a young girl, but when she reported it, there were no repercussions.

2024 Honoree, Zayed Award For Human Fraternity

That marked my life. It caused a 180-degree turn. My life project was something else. But at that moment, I said “I have to do something for these girls.”

This moment inspired her to begin working with marginalized women, specifically inmates, which then kickstarted her creation of the “Woman, stand up” foundation for the social reintegration of prisoners.

The foundation provides social and psychological care for inmates as well as a home for those who have been released.

Now, the inmates refer to Sister Nelly as “mother” and often confide in her. And she says many of them have profoundly impacted her life.

2024 Honoree, Zayed Award For Human Fraternity

One woman told me, “I have never felt loved.” And with that sentence, I stood up and hugged her, it was all I could do.
Her mother never loved her, she was a victim of abuse by her mother and also of rape. She was raised by her grandfather but when she was 12 years old, the grandfather died and Gina went to the street. She was a street child. After that, she had a pair of twins, they were taken away from her by the Chilean juvenile service and she never saw them again. Then, she had another partner who had AIDS, so Gina at that time was also living with HIV. She was receiving treatment in prison but living with HIV nonetheless. It was a terrible story.

Sister Nelly says “these are stories that carry other stories,” because the generations to follow depend on them. The foundation strives to offer these marginalized people a turning point in life.

2024 Honoree, Zayed Award For Human Fraternity

Gina had a big impact on my life in terms of embracing, welcoming and not judging women. Nobody knows what a woman has gone through to be deprived of her freedom. Sometimes, socially, we take a very hard look and we say “this woman fell this time, she fell again” and when that woman is released, she has nothing. So often, her greatest protection is prison.

For Sister Nelly, the foundation is a parish within prison, where inmates can even receive the sacraments. In the last five years, 700 women have gone through the program. And only 5% of them have returned to prison.

Sister Nelly hopes that her receipt of the Zayed Award will help expand the foundation in Chile and serve those who want to apply the values of “Woman, stand up” in their own country.


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