Dr Samar gives a voice to those no one listens to

Published 24 May 2019 in:

She’s fighting for education for children, clinics for women and health care for poor people. Sima Samar’s fight for human rights began in a hospital and took her all the way to the Afghan government. Today, she is Chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

“I believe that education is the key to democracy. We must educate people so that they know their rights and what they must fight for. I want all girls to know that they have to stand up for their rights. No one will give them to us as a present. The equality we are seeking demands sacrifices,” says Dr Samar.

When she was young, it was her desire to change things and help people that encouraged her to train to become a doctor. When her husband was arrested during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, she fled to Pakistan, where she set up the Shuhada Organisation. Today the organisation runs a number of hospitals, schools and orphanages, with a focus on girls and women.

According to the Shuhada Organisation, it has provided health care to almost five million people and fundamental human rights to more than 1.5 million people. Dr Samar has also continued to pursue human rights issues in other forums. She was Vice Chairman of the Afghan Interim Administration between December 2001 and June 2002. In addition she both set up and ran the country’s first Ministry for Women’s Affairs. She subsequently became and remains Chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

However, her engagement has come at a cost.

“I have sacrificed a lot. I could have lived a better life, without stress, anxiety and constant threats. Many Afghans have left our home country in order to live in safety. Imagine if I had stayed in Sweden when I first came here 30 years ago … But at that time we had already begun running our hospitals for refugee children and schools for girls. I thought that that was more meaningful than just thinking about myself,” says Dr Samar.

When she was in the 6th or 7th grade, she noticed that the same rules did not apply to girls and boys, neither at home nor at school. Different ethnic and religious groups were also treated differently. She had never been taught about human rights or equality, but her gut feeling was that something was wrong.

“So I started to talk about it. And I stopped listening to my parents, brothers and others who told me what I was and was not allowed to do as a girl,” says Dr Samar.

She does not expect to be able to live in the wholly equitable world she is working for herself. Things have certainly changed in Afghanistan since she was little. More children go to school, more people have access to adequate health care and people have started to talk about their rights. At the same time, we are facing major challenges,” says Dr Samar.

“I am referring to the militarisation that is taking place in major parts of the world. We people have such fantastic knowledge, and what do we do with it? Manufacture weapons and bombs that kill and destroy. But I am hopeful when I think about the younger generation. When they talk about using one less plastic bag, not wasting that glass of water… They believe they can change the world. And so do I.”

It is when she meets people that Dr Samar feels most optimistic about the future. She speaks about meetings with children whose mothers have received care at her hospitals. The young Afghan diplomats she meets when travelling in Europe who have been educated at her schools. And the elderly man from a small village in Afghanistan who delivered a message from his grandchild:

“She was five and demanded to be allowed to start school, but it was two hours away and her grandfather told her she was too young. She then replied that she would go to Sima Samar and complain! That meant a lot to me – not that she knew who I was but that she was aware of her right to go to school. And she knew that there was someone fighting for that right,” says Dr Samar.

Written by Cecilia Oscarsson, Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs