Sima Samar, who trained as as a medical doctor, is the head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission. She is a lifelong women’s rights campaigner for better education and better health treatment for women in her native country.
In 2002, she became Afghanistan’s most powerful female politician when she became Deputy President. However, her tenure was short-lived and she was pushed out by conservatives. She is against the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, arguing that their work there is not yet done, and she is concerned about the lack of women involved in the reconciliation talks with the Taliban. Sian Griffiths tracked her down in Kabul to find out more.
You originally trained as a doctor in Kabul during the 1970s. When did you become interested in human rights and, more specifically, women’s rights?
I started my university career in 1975 – before the Russians [arrived]. Even at that time, I was fighting for equality and social justice. This was my interest in human rights – to fight against discrimination.
The situation for women has improved, but not to the satisfaction of most of us
When you addressed a Canadian Federation of University Women conference in July 2010, you stated: ‘If we don’t have a healthy mother, we don’t have a healthy society.’ Could you explain what you meant by this?
If we have women educated, they will help their children more then the father. If she is educated, then she might take care of her health. Then she will have the knowledge to reduce the number of the children she wants – or have a longer space between the different pregnancies. She will not have 10 children with poor health. It is clear, if she has two children, rather then having 10 children, she and her children will be healthier.
The average life expectancy for a woman [and for Afghans generally] is 44. What health problems do Afghan women face – and why?
Afghan women face every health problem caused by poverty and lack of good food. First of all, malnutrition, due to the lack of quality food; infectious disease, due to the lack of clean water; and tuberculosis, again due to a weak, low immune system.
The majority of women who live in the rural area do not know about their equal rights in the constitution. [This] means that the equal rights for them is not a reality
You have also stated that many Afghan women suffer from osteomalacia – a condition leading to a softening of the bones due to inadequate diet. You suggest this is a particular problem for women wearing burqas – could you explain this further?
Malnutrition, lack of exposing the body to the sun, multiple pregnancies and breastfeeding cause osteomalacia.
In 2002, you became Deputy President alongside President Hamid Karzai and then subsequently Minister of Women’s Affairs – making you Afghanistan’s top female politician. What did you hope to achieve in the role and did you succeed?
I became Vice-President and as Minister of Women’s Affairs was able to establish the ministry for the first time. There was no Ministry for Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan before. It involved finding a building, everything for an office, establishing strategy for the ministry. Then I had to step down in June 2002 due to the pressure from fundamentalists and warlords in the government and state institutions.
Has the plight of women improved in the nearly 10 years since you were Minister of Women’s Affairs?
The situation for women has improved, but not to the satisfaction of most of us after nine years – with the presence of the whole world. [There are] more women in school, more women in public services, more women in politics, and more women have access to very basic healthcare. [There are] more women in business. These are improvements. But the majority of women who live in rural areas, live under the same condition as they were before this regime.
Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution defines Afghanistan as an Islamic Republic, where men and women enjoy equal status before the law. To what extent is this being achieved?
Gender equality is not worse for women – but it’s not the reality on the ground for the majority of women in Afghanistan. The majority of women who live in the rural area do not know about their equal rights in the constitution. [This] means that the equal rights for them is not a reality.
I believe that without the full participation of women, no peace or development will happen in Afghanistan
Are you disappointed by the lack of women in government?
Of course, we want more women in positions of power and decision-making in order to make a law to support women’s rights in Afghanistan. I believe that without the full participation of women, no peace or development will happen in Afghanistan.
Safety for women working in public life remains an issue… In April, Amnesty International highlighted the case of Nida Khyani, a local politician who was the victim of a drive-by shooting. The organization said she was another casualty of what they termed ‘the systematic violent targeting of women’ in public life in Afghanistan. Amnesty also accused both the Afghan government and international troops of failing to protect women working in public life. Do you agree?
This is the truth. Women face problems in public life, mainly in areas where security is really bad and the war is going on.
Last month, a human rights organization warned that Afghan government attempts to include the Taliban in the running of the country could harm women’s rights. Human Rights Watch said that women suffer from intimidation, violence and even death threats in areas where the Taliban have influence. Have you heard about these reports and does a reconciliation with the Taliban worry you?
For the moment practically no women are involved in policy-making for this reintegration and reconciliation. I am worried about any negotiation which undermines human rights, in particular, women’s rights. Also, I am worried that there will be no accountability and justice in this kind of peace deal. Peace, without respect for human rights and human dignity, is meaningless and is not going to be sustainable.
Afghanistan has been described by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the UN as a narco-state. Nearly three quarters of the world’s opium is produced in Afghanistan – making it responsible for much of the world’s heroin trade. The profits generated only help to fuel the conflict in Afghanistan. What damage does opium do to Afghan life and is the government making any inroads in reducing its effect – what needs to be done?
Peace, without respect for human rights and human dignity, is meaningless and is not going to be sustainable
Narcotics are a problem in Afghanistan and have been for almost 20 years. The fight against the problem first of all needs political will by the government – and the international community as a partner to the Afghan government. [There needs to be] strong action against producers and drug lords in Afghanistan.
The US, Britain and Canada have signalled that they intend to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011. Will Afghanistan be ready for them to leave?
The problem with the countries who want to leave Afghanistan is, first: why are they in Afghanistan? If they achieve the goal, they can leave the country. If not, an unfinished job in Afghanistan will cause more damage to all of the countries – and the world.
What if the price for peace is offering amnesty to some alleged war criminals – is that a price worth paying?
The Afghan people and every human being wants peace and needs peace – but not at any price, because that peace will not be sustainable if we can’t build support among the public or if we do not respect human rights, justice and accountability, and full participation of women in the peace-building process. The people have to be accountable for their actions.