The State of Women's Rights in Afghanistan

An interview with Sima Samar, the former Minister of Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan and currently the Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
By: /
January 2, 2014
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Global Journalism Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto

Sima Samar’s biography highlights some of the gains that have been made for women’s rights in Afghanistan. A Nobel Peace Prize nominee and medical doctor, Samar served as Afghanistan’s Minister of Women’s Affairs between 2001 and 2003 after fleeing Afghanistan as a refugee in the 1980s. She is currently the Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

OpenCanada reporter Alia Dharssi spoke to her about how much progress has been made on women’s rights in Afghanistan since 2001 at the Trust Women Conference in early December. She said that, although Afghanistan has made great strides on women’s rights since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, it is failing to effectively promote women’s rights because of a lack of political will and low-quality education.

Do you think women are better off than they were before the international intervention in 2001?

Absolutely. The only country in the world in the last century which officially banned girl’s education is Afghanistan – or was Afghanistan. This is not anymore the case. We have around three million girls going to school. We have girls and women who are getting higher education.

In terms of access to health services, we didn’t have a lot of access to health facilities and health services or a lot of midwives, for example. Currently, we have many more facilities for women to get access to healthcare. The mortality rate of pregnant women is much lower than it was before.

In spite of these improvements, maternal mortality is still quite high. It’s one of the worst in the world.

Absolutely. There’s a long way to go. Some parts of the country don’t have clinics or hospitals, or are not under the control of the government.

But in terms of freedom of expression, the media has improved. Women are working in media as camerawoman. We didn’t have camerawoman before. They are also journalists, writers. Women are running radio programs.

If you look at women’s political participation, we have a lot of women in the Parliament. We have three women in the Cabinet. We have some women in the police. 1,800 women are in police. We have some women in the army. These are achievements.

There are two big transitions coming up in 2014: the national election and the withdrawal of American troops. What would you like to see happen during this transition to protect and continue the promotion of women’s rights?

Credible elections. I don’t think we should talk about fair and free elections because we know it’s not possible, but credible elections would keep the people’s trust and confidence in the democratic process.  In my view, if the people support the government then that in itself is a guarantee for security and for human rights. But if the people do not trust the government or have confidence in it, they’ll help the opposition.  So that is really an important issue.

The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit released a report recently that said that money dedicated to gender issues hasn’t been spent in an accountable way. The report said the policy on gender mainstreaming has had little effect because of “a lack of political will, limited funding and weak capacity among national and international stakeholders.” Do you agree?

It is true. In order to make gender a cross-cutting issue, gender units where established in different ministries. A woman was sent into each ministry without clear terms of reference or a job description. It’s not really effective because these women are not involved in the overall planning of the ministry.  On International Women’s Day on 8th March, they distribute gifts of scarves in their ministry. They don’t accomplish much else. That is not gender mainstreaming. Gender mainstreaming is making every single step the ministry takes gender-sensitized. It’s not only about the number of women in the Ministry, but much more than that. It’s about opinions, ideas.

How do you think Afghanistan can get there?

First, we need strong political will. That is not there, unfortunately. Secondly, we need a practical, implementable strategy in policy.

In terms of the next 5 to 10 years, what are the key things you would like to see improve for women in Afghanistan?

Well, quality education. The quality of education is not very good because we don’t have enough facilities, enough teachers, enough rooms in the school. Currently in Kabul, for example, we have three shifts in one school: from 7:00 to 9:00, from 9:00 to 12:00, from 12:30 to 4:00 How can you learn in 2 hours? When I was young, we would go in from 8:00 to 1:00, for five hours. The second issues is: what is your teaching material? Teaching material can express, conservative opinions and patriarchal ideas. It may not be sensitized. For example, a children’s book about a boy playing outside, while his sister is working in the kitchen.  That kind of material teaches young girls that their space is in the kitchen, while he, the boy, has a right, as a child, to play outside. Tackling this requires multidimensional strategies.

I would also like to see women’s access to reproductive rights improve – access to contraception, as well as access to maternity services.  Job opportunities are also key for the empowerment of women.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. It originally appeared on trust.org.