Sima Samar continues her work on women’s rights despite harrowing conditions under Taliban rule
More than 14 months have passed since the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. In an interview with Right Livelihood, 2012 Laureate Sima Samar discussed the impact of the takeover on women’s rights. This is part two of a three-part series detailing life in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Much has changed for Sima Samar since receiving the Right Livelihood Award in 2012. At that time, Samar was operating more than 100 schools and 15 clinics and hospitals across Afghanistan and Pakistan. All of her efforts focused on improving the livelihoods of Afghan women and girls.
Samar’s work between 2001, when the Taliban had been overthrown, and 2021, when they returned to power, significantly advanced women’s rights in Afghanistan. For the first time, women were involved in political processes, and gender equality was nearly a reality.
All of that progress was lost in August 2021 when the Taliban regained control of the country.
Since their return to power, the Taliban have issued scores of decrees restricting women and girls’ participation in public life. This includes banning the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, of which Samar was the first minister.
The Taliban have also ruled that women must remain at home except in cases of necessity, they are prohibited from working most jobs outside the home and are not permitted to attend school past sixth grade.
Aside from these, one of the largest blows to women’s rights under the Taliban, Samar said, has been to healthcare.
While the Taliban don’t explicitly restrict women’s healthcare, many of their rules and regulations have severely worsened women’s health outcomes in the country.
The primary obstacle to receiving adequate healthcare stems from poverty, explained Samar.
“What has actually put pressure on women is that, first of all, the hospitals and the clinics that had some resources, they already spent the resources,” said Samar. “And because poverty increased, … there’s no public transportation, and even if there is public transportation, [women] cannot pay to reach the clinic.”
Coupled with poverty, another issue exacerbating the health crisis is that women in Afghanistan cannot access contraception.
As a result, they are forced to give birth in an increasingly unsafe environment, both for themselves and their babies, said Samar.
“Because of the poverty, because of lack of good diet, because of lack of prenatal care… because of anaemia, because of the stress every day in the country, there are a lot of premature newborn babies,” said Samar. “And there are a lot of, of course, low-weight babies.”
Samar finds her home country in the same position it was when the Taliban were in power for the first time nearly two decades ago.
“Afghanistan was the second highest in mortality and infant mortality before 2002,” Samar said. “With the creation of hospitals and training of midwives, and so on, and sending them to different parts of the country, the mortality rate came down to 50 per cent… but it’s gone up again, because of a lack of access for these people.”
Despite the challenges and setbacks, Samar has not given up.
“I continue to work on human rights because I believe human rights are violated everywhere,” Samar said.
Whereas Samar previously worked for women’s rights on the ground, the Taliban’s presence in Afghanistan has forced her to change strategies. She is now a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University.
“I continue to do that work in a different way,” said Samar. “I try to facilitate access to education for some of the young girls [in Afghanistan] or try to find some money for home-schooling for the girls because the Taliban do not allow the girls to go to secondary school.”
According to Samar, the international community can help Afghan girls access secondary education by reimagining what qualifies as gender-based violence.
She explained that although the international community pushes for accountability when it comes to gender-based violence in the form of sexual assault, this is not the case for gender-based violence in the form of education bans.
“It’s very, very visible that they [push for accountability] on sexual gender-based violence, which they count as a crime against humanity,” said Samar. “But, it should not always be focused on rape. Because stopping the girls to attend school is sexual gender-based violence. It’s because of their gender and because of their sex.”