Sima Samar

Sima Samar is a doctor for the poor, an educator of the marginalised and defender of the human rights of all in Afghanistan. She has established and nurtured the Shuhada Organization that, in 2012, operated more than one hundred schools and 15 clinics and hospitals dedicated to providing education and healthcare, particularly focusing on women and girls. She served in the Interim Administration of Afghanistan and established the first-ever Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Since 2004, she has chaired the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission that holds human rights violators accountable, a commitment that has put her own life at great risk.


Sima Samar’s early life

Sima Samar was born February 3rd 1957. Following the Soviet-backed coup, in 1979 her husband, his three brothers and more than 60 other family members disappeared and were never seen again. Sima Samar graduated from Kabul University Medical College in 1982. She then practiced medicine at a government hospital in Kabul, but after a few months was forced to flee for her safety to her native Jaghori where she provided medical treatment to patients throughout the remote areas of Central Afghanistan.

In 1984, she went to Pakistan for the education of her young son. After working as a doctor at the refugee branch of the Mission Hospital in Quetta, Pakistan, and distressed by the total lack of health care facilities for Afghan refugee women, she started a hospital for Afghan refugee women and children in Quetta.

Shuhada Organization and Clinic

In 1989, Samar formally established the Shuhada Organization and Shuhada Clinic. The Shuhada Organization now operates 12 clinics and 3 hospitals in Afghanistan, all dedicated to the provision of health care to the Afghan population and particularly to women and girls. In addition, the Shuhada Organization runs nurse, community health worker and traditional birth attendant training programmes and reproductive health education projects.

In 2012, the Shuhada Organization also operated 71 schools for girls and boys in Afghanistan and 34 schools for Afghan refugees in Quetta, Pakistan.

During the Taliban regime, Shuhada’s schools in Central Afghanistan were among the few academic girls’ primary schools; the organisation’s girls’ high schools were the only high schools that girls were able to attend in the country. The Shuhada Organization also ran underground home school classes for girls in Kabul. Following the collapse of the Taliban, these home school classes became the basis for two schools for girls that now teach more than 3,000 students and were handed over to the government.

In addition, the Shuhada Organization runs English and computer courses, and income generation and adult literacy programmes for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Shuhada Organization also has established shelters for vulnerable women, which provide a safe living and learning environment for women who have no guardians, are at risk from violence, are poor, and are not able to earn a living. The goal is to provide them not only with shelter and food, but also with opportunities for education and training so that they can have better lives and eventually be able to support themselves.

From 1989-2011, Shuhada’s health programmes have benefited over 3.3 million people, its education programmes 176,000, and its vocational training 6,000 people. It has also given human rights trainings to 220,000 people.

Achievements in the Interim Administration of Afghanistan

In 2001, Dr. Samar returned to Afghanistan, where she served as the Deputy Chair and Minister of Women’s Affairs for the Interim Administration of Afghanistan from December 2001 until June 2002. Sima Samar was one of only two women cabinet ministers in the transition government. She then was elected as the vice-chair of the Emergency Loya Jirga in 2003.

During the Interim Administration, Dr. Samar established the first-ever Afghanistan Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Under her leadership, the Ministry began advocacy, training and service programmes to help restore the rights of women and to improve their economic, political, legal and social status. Among other accomplishments, the Ministry won the right of women government employees to return to their jobs and to keep their seniority after maternity leave, secured the representation of women as 11% of the Loya Jirga delegates, oversaw the re-entry of girls to schools, and launched a women’s rights legal department.

Promoting human rights

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) was set up in 2002 and constitutionalised in 2004. Samar was appointed its first chairperson. Since its inception, the AIHRC has reported on pressing challenges including issues of civilian casualties, the realisation of economic and social rights and the status of women. One of the most important reports that the AIHRC has published is ‘Call for Justice’ which examines past human rights crimes and abuses in Afghanistan.

AIHRC’s focus has been to strengthen the rule of law and end a culture of impunity. Because of her relentless calls for accountability for human rights violations of the past and the present, Samar is an anathema to many of the human rights violators who hold office in Afghanistan today. Having received several death threats as a result of persevering in her work, Samar is today always accompanied by bodyguards in Afghanistan.

From 2005-2009 Samar also served as the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur for the Situation of Human Rights for Sudan.

Educating and empowering future generation

Fervently believing that education is the key to socio-economic development and sustaining civil society in countries like Afghanistan, Samar recently established the non-profit Gawharshad Institute of Higher Education (GSIHE). The Institute initially offers training in the fields of political science, political sociology, economic planning, as well as leadership and administration in education. It aims to provide greater opportunities for women, poor and marginalised students through tuition subsidies and scholarships.

Various aspects of Samar’s work have been recognised over the years by a number of international awards, including the 1994 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership and the 2004 Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights. Additionally, she was conferred with a Doctor of Humane Letters (hon.) by Brown University in May 2005.

Between 2004-2019, she chaired the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission that holds human rights violators accountable, a commitment that put her own life at great risk. During 2019, she was appointed Special Envoy and State Minister for Human Rights and International Relations in Afghanistan.

Interview with Sima Samar

(September 2012)

You started your career as a doctor, and today you head the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). In between, you have established schools and served in government. What has motivated you to take on these different and very challenging roles?

Afghanistan has always been a male dominated country, and discrimination against women and ethnic groups was very common. Believing in equality, I started very early on in my life to fight against discrimination. In order to achieve my goal and fight against the inequality in the country, I decided to take on the most difficult task in Afghanistan: to prove that a woman can also do the same work as a man.

What would you say is Afghanistan’s greatest challenge today and how and where do you see the international community being able to support Afghanistan in a constructive manner?

The biggest challenge in Afghanistan is a lack of security and the absence of rule of law. The international community can do a few things to support Afghanistan:

A- Implement a long-term multi-dimensional strategy for Afghanistan. Unfortunately the focus now is only on military means to build security, whereas we all know that building security requires a broader approach including economic development, poverty reduction and much more.

B- Understanding that security is not the end of active war, but more about human security and ensuring people’s access to basic social services and living with dignity.

C- Providing more attention to changing the mentality of people through education. One of the reasons why the war was so long and so aggressive in Afghanistan was due to the lack of education. The people have been used easily under the pretense of respecting religion and culture.

D- Promoting women’s participation in every social and political activity related to the country which has not been the case till date. This must be combined with a general respect for human rights and democratic principles.

E- Promotion of accountability and justice in Afghanistan. This has not been the case in the past 11 years. That can be achieved through good laws and the rule of law.

F- Promotion of democratic values in all the conflict countries including Afghanistan.

Heading the AIHRC comes with an exceptionally difficult mandate. What would you say has been your greatest success as chairperson?

As Chairperson of AIHRC, my biggest achievement is that I am still alive and the word ‘human rights’ has been used without being counted as a crime. When I started as Chairperson of AIHRC, using the word ‘human rights’ was perceived as a crime. Now, people regularly use this word without a lot of fear.

Religious conservatives were upset when you questioned certain Islamic laws, including Sharia law, in 2003. How difficult has it been promoting women’s rights in Afghanistan, and what impact have your training programmes and advocacy had on ground realities?

Some of the religious conservatives still use the same argument that human rights principles are a Western concept. My argument is the existence and oneness of human beings anywhere is the proof of their rights. We Afghans are also human beings and we have rights. In a conservative society like Afghanistan, the fact that we have equal rights in the constitution for men and women is indicative of the impact of AIHRC’s activities.

You are no stranger to frequent death threats. What gives you the courage to continue working as a human rights activist?

My belief in human rights and equality is the reason why I continue my activities.

You have always focused on education, both through the Shuhada Organisation, which built schools, and now with the Gawharshad Institute of Higher Education. How do you see improving access to education changing the dynamics of the situation in Afghanistan? 

My personal achievement and the difference between myself and uneducated members of my community is a clear sign of the impact of education. That is why I think education is the key to change the community and mentality of the people.

What does the Right Livelihood Award mean to you at this stage of your career?

The Award is the recognition of the suffering of the women of Afghanistan and the need to continue supporting the Afghan people, particularly women in this country. It gives me more courage and supports my personal security. And I am very grateful for the solidarity.

Source: The Right Livelihood Award

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