Dr Sima Samar: “Human rights have a value now in Afghanistan”

Dr Sima Samar is the current Chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. A doctor by training, Samar spent a decade in exile in Pakistan. It was during this time that she began her committed activism for Afghan women’s access to healthcare and education. Samar returned to Afghanistan to serve as Deputy President and then Minister of Women’s Affairs in the post-Taliban interim government from 2001 to 2003. Since 2005, she has also served as the United Nation Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Sudan.

Photo : Jawad Darwaziyan / Matthieu Hackière

Have your rights ever been violated?
When I was seven years old, my family moved to Helmand province in Afghanistan, because of my father’s work. I was taught by a local religious teacher, and had no trouble when it came time to sit the first grade exams for maths and language. However, religion was a whole different question. Even though I was a Shiite-born Muslim, I was expected to adhere to the Sunni precepts and history. There was no space for understanding the differences between these two branches of Islam.

Have the rights of your family members been violated?
My father was a polygamist. That was a direct violation of our human rights.

What do you see as an achievement in Afghanistan?
Human rights have a value now in Afghanistan; they are discussed within families and throughout the different regions of the country, even in the most remote areas. Speaking about human rights means breaking taboos in Afghan society. That we can do this now is, for me, one of the greatest achievements of our time.

What do you fear?
I have no fears anymore; I know now that nothing is impossible. I think of the days when I went to Jaghori district, my home town, and how I felt I was all alone in my endeavours. Today I enjoy the full support of the Afghan people. With enough collective effort and determination, things can be done; change can happen.

What are the major challenges facing Afghanistan?
We need a well-structured economic plan for an independent Afghanistan. If the foreign aid stops, even though Afghanistan has a large reserve of natural resources and mines, the people of Afghanistan will suffer from the lack of planning on their government’s part.
The level of illiteracy in Afghanistan is an emerging social crisis. Although there has been considerable progress in the area of education, the overall quality is still quite low. If this is not redressed, we will have a great number of Afghan people who are either completely illiterate or not sufficiently literate to participate effectively in their society. This will eventually lead to a social crisis.

Is it possible that girls could once again be banned from schools and women excluded from the social sphere?
No, I can’t see this happening again. From Shinwar district to Khost province, where previously schools were banned or burned, people demand schools for girls.

Which factors hinder women’s participation in social, economic, political and cultural arenas?
Gender-based distinctions exist at the very base of the social and cultural structure of Afghanistan. From the games children play in the playground to the books they read in school, we can see clear evidence of gender-based discrimination. It starts with the most simple factors and grows throughout society.

A family’s level of education also plays an important role. In better-educated families, the differences between the sons and daughters are smaller. In some cases, the daughters are even considered to be somewhat independent. But in the less-educated or illiterate families, as soon as the daughter turns fourteen, she is married. There is no question about it – from this point on, she “belongs” to her husband.

We must also not forget the important question of women’s self-esteem and the confidence this gives them to take bigger steps for change.

What do women in Afghanistan demand?
To live in a society where rule of law is effectively implemented; the Afghan leaders have a responsibility to deliver this. Furthermore, if we really believe in equality between men and women, women need to act as equals. In order to achieve a genuinely equal society, women need the space and opportunities to grow and participate in the social, political, and cultural domains of society.

Which social forces can women count on?
The Constitution of Afghanistan and increasing opportunities for women’s access to education are two key factors supporting a meaningful role for Afghan women in society. The women of Afghanistan are committed to positive change - this commitment is the greatest resource we have.

"Unveiling Afghanistan, the Unheard Voices of Progress" is a campaign by Armanshahr/OPEN ASIA and FIDH, which explores views held by Afghan civil society actors. Over 50 days, 50 influential social, political, and cultural actors hope to spark conversation and debate about building a society that is inclusive of women’s and human rights in Afghanistan.

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