Q+A - Afghanistan lacks political will to improve women's rights, says country's human rights chief

by Alia Dharssi | alia_d | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 13 December 2013 08:27 GMT

Members of the Loya Jirga, grand council, attend during the last day of the Loya Jirga, in Kabul, on Nov. 24, 2013. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

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In order to mainstream gender issues, a woman was sent into each ministry without a clear job description. That is not gender mainstreaming. It’s about opinions and ideas, says Sima Samar.

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The Afghan government is failing to effectively promote women’s rights because of a lack of political will and low-quality education, said Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the country has made great strides for women and girls in education, healthcare and the media, but there is a long way to go, Samar said.

A medical doctor, former minister for women’s affairs and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Samar serves as the first chairperson of the AIHRC. She spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation about women’s rights in Afghanistan on the sidelines of the Trust Women Conference last week.

Q: 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 3 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 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.

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

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 the media as camerawomen. We didn’t have camerawomen before. They are also journalists, writers. Women are running radio programmes.

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 the police. We have some women in the army. These are achievements.

Q: 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.

Q: 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 were established in different ministries. A woman was sent into each ministry without clear terms of reference or 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-sensitised. It’s not only about the number of women in the ministry, but much more than that. It’s about opinions, ideas.

Q: 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.

Q: In terms of the next five 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 two hours? When I was young, we would go in from 8:00 to 1:00, for five hours. The second issue is: what is your teaching material? Teaching material can express conservative opinions and patriarchal ideas. It may not be sensitised. 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.

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