When she was born in 1957 in Jaghori, Afghanistan, Sima Samar’s destiny seemed to be marked: she was a woman, in a place where women’s rights were violated and forgotten and she belonged to the Hazara ethnic group, among the most persecuted in the country. However, it was precisely these two characteristics that marked her path and her desire for change.
With the arrival of the Soviets in 1979, Sima lost her husband, three brothers and other family members.
In 1982, she became the first Afghan woman to graduate in Medicine from Kabul University. She worked for some time in Kabul hospital, but then moved back to her home town, where she provided medical care to patients in the most remote areas of the country. She travelled to villages on foot or on horseback, equipped with her tools and her wish to make a difference. It was here that Sima came into contact with rural Afghanistan, where women not only suffer the worst abuses, they do not even know the minimum rights guaranteed by law. Just think of child brides, a drama that still affects these areas.
Forced to flee to Pakistan with her son, she worked in the refugee ward of the Mission Hospital in Quetta. Tired of the lack of health facilities for women, in 1989 she set up the Shuhada Organisation and Clinic, which currently runs 12 clinics and 3 hospitals in Afghanistan, dedicated to providing health care to the Afghan population and in particular to women and girls, 55 schools in Afghanistan and 3 in Pakistan, dedicated to refugees. “Where our NGO has opened schools, great changes have been made", Sima said. “Education is the recipe for healing many evils, empowering women and fighting corruption. This is the only way in which we can change the face of Afghanistan”.
During the Taliban regime, schools run by the NGO became crucial: they were indeed among the few primary schools for girls and the only high schools girls could attend in the country.
However, Sima Samar’s work soon clashed with the fundamentalism and power of the Taliban. She did not hesitate to oppose one of the Taliban leaders herself, when he seized a truckload of protein food and building materials heading to one of her hospitals. “If you don’t give it back to me, I will hold hostage your mother, who is being treated in my clinic”, she warned him. The following day, the cargo arrived intact at the hospital.
After the fall of the Taliban, Dr Samar served as Vice-President and Minister of Women's Affairs for Afghanistan Interim Administration from December 2001 to June 2002, when she was forced to resign on the shameful accusation that her words and actions had questioned Islam. Her place in the government was never filled again.
Sima was not discouraged, her commitment to women’s rights became even stronger. With the Shuhada Organisation, she set up shelters for women who have no guardians, are at risk of violence, are poor or unable to earn a living. She has offered them not only shelter and food, but also an opportunity for education and vocational training, to make them self-sufficient and aware of their rights.
Sima Samar also became the chairperson of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), in charge of overseeing human rights education projects throughout the country, implementing a national women’s rights education programme and investigating into past and present human rights violations. Along with the fight for women’s actual participation in public life and the battle against the imposition of burqa, this task has led her to be watched even more by fundamentalists. Constantly threatened with death, she is not discouraged when she is asked to close her schools. “You know where I am. I will not stop doing my job”, she replies. Since 2019, Sima Samar has been appointed as a member of the UN Secretary-General High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement.
Sima Samar was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, when Liu Xiaobo from China won, and she openly protested against the decision made by Afghanistan and other countries not to attend the award ceremony at Beijing’s request. In 2012, Sima Samar received the Right Livelihood Award “for her long and courageous dedication to human rights, namely women’s rights, in one of the most complex and dangerous regions of the world”.
After the new Taliban takeover in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US forces from the country, Sima Samar spoke out especially about protecting the physical and mental health of Afghan women and children as a top priority at this time. “Afghans are living in fear now, they have been deprived of their future. Thousands are displaced in their own country, living outdoors, without the most basic things: no water, no shelter, no food, no sanitation, no showers. I am a doctor. I worked in refugee camps in Pakistan. I myself was a refugee in Pakistan for a total of 27 years, when I ran a hospital for girls and women and I founded a humanitarian organisation. I have seen a lot. I know what displaced people in this situation desperately need to stay healthy. Mentally, physically. They need basic health care, a point of contact answering their questions”.
Translated by Valentina Gianoli