From refugee to healer — the story of Sima Samar

Prominent Afghan rights activist is worried about the lack of rule of law

November 27, 2012 10:08 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 04:35 am IST - MUMBAI:

Dr. Sima Samar, former Vice President of Afghanistan, in Mumbai on Tuesday. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Dr. Sima Samar, former Vice President of Afghanistan, in Mumbai on Tuesday. Photo: Vivek Bendre

The former Afghanistan Vice-President and Women’s Affairs Minister, Sima Samar, laments the lack of rule of law in her country. At the same time, she is optimistic about the progress it has made after many years of war.

Dr. Samar, who obtained her degree in medicine from Kabul University in February 1982, is in the city to receive the fifth Mother Teresa Memorial International Awards for Social Justice from the Harmony Foundation on Wednesday.

She was a refugee in Pakistan from 1984 to 2001, before becoming one of the few prominent women politicians in Afghanistan. Now, Dr. Samar is chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

“The biggest challenge for us today is the lack of security … It limits access to everything, including health, housing, freedom of movement and expression,” Dr. Samar said in an interview to The Hindu on Tuesday.

Apart from the lack of rule of law, there is every kind of violation. “The third biggest challenge before the AIHRC is the lack of awareness of rights among the people, who can’t defend their rights or respect the rights of others. Poverty is another big issue as it violates the rights to basic shelter, adequate food and housing.”

She was made Vice-President in the Hamid Karzai-led interim government and then Minister for Women’s Affairs. But she was kicked out after six months. There were just two women in the a council of 30 ministers. “We were just getting out of the Taliban rule, and it was a difficult situation. The council practically denied our existence, if that’s possible,” she says.

At a time when the government favoured amnesty for war crimes, her strong sense of justice ensured that she had a short tenure as deputy head of government. “I was asking for an end to the culture of impunity and calling for justice.”

She opened a clinic in Pakistan for Afghan refugee women. Even now, there is a huge lack of access to proper health care in Afghanistan. The flights from Kabul to India are full of people seeking quality health care.

The AIHRC has 14 offices nationwide. It has different departments and pays special attention to human rights education in school curriculum. It holds workshops for the army, prosecutors and judges. It also brings out many publications, including a monthly magazine which is distributed free. It tries to make laws more friendly to women and works closely with shelters to protect women in need. Earlier, Afghanistan did not have a law on child trafficking, but now it has a legal framework to punish offenders.

Dr. Samar said the AIHRC did a lot of research on women and child rights and child labourers, who are many in Afghanistan. “They are the breadwinners of families since they have lost their parents in the long drawn-out wars, and we cannot ban it [child labour]. However, we are demanding better regulation, working conditions and access to education.”

She witnessed the strife in Sudan as the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and is dismayed by what she saw and experienced. More worrying is the plight of the people with disability and polio, a disease which Afghanistan is yet to eradicate. The AIHRC has powers to monitor and investigate cases and has a special investigative team. It expends transitional justice and believes in the acknowledgement of suffering to heal the wounds and reconciliation in keeping with Islamic or cultural laws.

The AIHRC has documented war crimes since 1978 and even named people, but the report is yet to be submitted to the government. The Afghan Parliament did announce a general amnesty for war crimes but people are bent on taking revenge. Over three decades of war and strife have destroyed the country, but there has been some achievement in the past few years. “We could have done much more but we now have eight million children in school and there is better access to education and health care, though quality is poor. Especially for women, there are few women doctors, and families don’t take girls to the doctors,” she says.

The future of any country depends on the leadership and the involvement of the public. “You can’t buy that,” she remarks. “It is a process. We will also be able to move ahead.” Like others, she is not supportive of the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and says no foreign force should stay in a country for too long.

She is sure that the Taliban will not come back. “The people have already experienced the Taliban once and know [their] mentality. Especially, the young people and the women are able to exercise their rights now. We had one TV [channel] when the Taliban took over; now we have 30-40 TV channels, over 400 radio stations, and there are a lot of changes. Taliban supporters are politically and financially weakened.”

The media is also emerging as a critical and powerful force. Parliament has a 25 per cent quota for women, and women are gaining ground in the public sphere. “These are the same women who were virtually under house arrest earlier; there is a big change now.”

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