I witnessed firsthand sexual violence and brutal exploitation of women and girls in armed conflicts. We must break the silence surrounding this issue so women can be seen, heard and be counted. It is our universal responsibility to give women a voice and space so they can develop their own strategies to end this violence.
Patricia Garcia has been a humanitarian aid worker for over twenty years in some of the world’s longest running conflicts: Afghanistan, Bosnia, Burma and Sudan. Following her postgraduate degree in Development Studies and Social Work at the University of Sydney, she started working with refugees and internally displaced people through Oxfam Australia. Her first posting was to an Eritrean refugee camp in Sudan. For 14 months she lived with limited supplies of food and water, a lack of sanitation and little contact with the outside world, in an area riddled with disease and death – a true test of her courage and conviction.
Women and children make up the majority of refugees in Sudan, about 80% of the total, and Patricia was instrumental in drawing attention to some of the most serious human rights violations affecting these women. Most often, violence against women in the camp was perpetrated by the police and other men in positions of authority, leaving the women vulnerable to exploitation and powerless to express their outrage and indignation. Patricia provided these women with a voice to the outside world and offered respite and care, helping heal their wounds.
It was here where she witnessed for the first time the devastating effects of female genital mutilation (FGM). This was in the early 1990s when FGM was an ‘invisible problem’ – not raised or discussed in public forums. Patricia highlighted the practice in her paper ‘FGM – a Human Rights Issue’ at an international conference in Nigeria, bringing worldwide attention to FGM as a harmful procedure, albeit a traditional one.
After Sudan, Patricia worked for Austcare and travelled to Bosnia and Croatia, providing support and care to Bosnian women survivors of rape. She collected their personal testimonies as evidence which was used in the trial of three Serbs at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia in The Hague – the first landmark case of rape in war as a crime against humanity.
Patricia later went to Afghanistan, a country entrenched in gender inequality, with deep poverty, early marriage, high fertility rates and limited health care. The term ‘structural violence’ against women refers to a system of violence that is condoned or perpetrated by the state. In this case, Afghan women were forbidden access to male doctors – and yet the vast majority of doctors were male. Pregnant women in need of medical attention therefore had very little access to medical care and consequently, Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world. Patricia helped to set up clinics staffed by women, offering basic antenatal care to desperate young mothers-to-be.
Since returning to Sydney, Patricia has designed the human rights course for the Masters of Peace and Conflict Studies at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS), University of Sydney. Recently she has been appointed Sudan Country Director for Concordis International, a non-profit organisation. She will be looking at dispute resolution, peace processes and reconciliation between local communities in Sudan and South Sudan, aiming to develop and implement policies that improve human security and lay firm foundations for lasting peace.