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January 2002

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Afghan Hero and Now a Minister

 

 By Sushmit Sen

 

Dr Sima Samar

 

The interim government in Afghanistan includes two women, marking their return to public office after years of repression under the Taleban, who banned women from work and study.

 

A provisional list released following the Bonn talks named Suhaila Sidiq, a surgeon and former army general who lives in Kabul, as Minister of Public Health and Sima Samar, a doctor who runs health centres for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, as Vice-President and Minister of Women's Affairs.

 

In the face of threats to her own safety, Dr. Samar has defied the Taliban's edicts that deny women and girls their basic rights to education, employment, mobility and medical care.

 

Since 1989, through her organization, Shuhada, Dr. Samar runs four hospitals and 10 clinics in Afghanistan and a hospital in Quetta, Pakistan. Her schools in rural Afghanistan are attended by more than 20,000 students; and more than 1,000 others attend her school in Quetta.

 

She has shown an incredible commitment towards assisting Afghan women in their struggles to end their oppression and to provide them with access to healthcare and education services. She is a strong advocate for the involvement of Afghan women in government and the reconstruction of civil society in Afghanistan.

 

Dr Samar received the news of her appointment in Edmonton, while on a visit to Canada, to receive the John Humphrey Freedom Award, for which she was selected last summer, in recognition of her outstanding work to promote the rights of Afghan women and girls. 

 

"It's a very positive thing that women have a role in this interim government; it will be no easy task but at the same time it is not difficult to see and identify the great needs facing women in Afghanistan," Dr. Samar said in a statement today from Edmonton, where she is speaking as part of the cross-Canada tour organised by Rights & Democracy.

 

Dr. Samar acknowledged that it will not be easy to accomplish this task: "We will need a great deal of support and solidarity from women all over the world because the needs of Afghan women are so great. I hope that the women of Afghanistan will accept me in this new role as worthy of representing their needs and interests; it is a task I have not been elected to do. I hope I will be able to live up to their expectations and be able to deal with at least some of their wounds." 

 

 

Ellie Tesher, writing in the The Toronto Star, has put her in the company of heroes, like universally hailed the lion of South Africa, Nelson Mandela; Burma's shining light, Aung San Suu Kyi, both Nobel peace laureates.

 

Dr. Samar received the award on December 10, International Human Rights Day, at a ceremony in Montreal.

 

In her acceptance speech, she expressed the hope that with the new situation in Afghanistan the restrictions on women and girls will quickly become history and will never be imposed again.

 

In earlier speeches, she also appealed to Western allies, including Canada, not to abandon a post-war Afghanistan: "We need help in rebuilding our country. Millions are in danger. I hope they survive the winter."

 

While Dr. Samar, 44, has no formal political experience, she has had years to finesse her administrative and diplomatic skills, accomplishing an apparently impossible mission: The education of women in a country where such an activity was banned.

 

She's moving to the devastated city of Kabul for what she calls "the biggest challenge of my life," beyond the many she's experienced as a physician and human rights activist.