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Distributed May 28, 2005
Contact Mark Nickel

The Stephen A. Ogden Jr. Memorial Lecture
Sima Samar: Human Rights and Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

Dr. Sima Samar, chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, delivered a Stephen A. Ogden Jr. ‘60 Memorial Lecture on International Relations Saturday, May 28, 2005, in Sayles Hall on the Brown University Campus. The lecture was part of the 35th annual Commencement Forums, offered during the University’s 237th Commencement. The text of Samar’s address follows here. Samar received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at Commencement ceremonies the next day.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today, on this important weekend for the students, their parents, alumni and the faculty of your university.

Today, I want to tell you what is happening in Afghanistan, and to talk about the importance of achieving women’s rights and human rights in our country.


“Fundamentalism was built and supported by outside countries as the strategy to fight the Soviet invasion and communism. This strategy had horrible consequences for women.”
Photos: Brown University/John Abromowski

Afghanistan is emerging from 23 years of brutal warfare. Women have been the primary victims of the conflict in Afghanistan. Human rights and women’s rights have been ignored by all sides during the war.

Despite the establishment of an Afghan interim government, adoption of a new constitution, and a presidential election, violence in our country continues. Just two weeks ago, 14 people were killed and 45 injured in protests as a result of the Newsweek Story on the Koran and on abuses of Afghan prisoners by coalition forces. Aid offices also were destroyed in some places. In Jalalabad, they tried to burn down the human rights commission office, and when they could not set it on fire, they caused a lot of other destruction.

The violence we see today in Afghanistan is the direct result of the following factors:

  • The failure to fulfill promises to improve security in Afghanistan.
  • The impunity enjoyed by human rights violators.
  • Lack of law enforcement and the war economy.

Within the next period, our country could either take positive steps toward sustainable peace or deteriorate even further into difficulties, unless lessons are learned from the past.

I want to first describe the situation of women’s rights and human rights in Afghanistan in the past and present. Then I will talk about the work of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission to try to end violations of rights and to lay the groundwork for improved lives for women, men and children in the country.

Afghanistan has always been a patriarchal society, but almost three decades of war destroyed the progress that women had begun to make in the 1960s and 1970s. Fundamentalism was built and supported by outside countries as the strategy to fight the Soviet invasion and communism. This strategy had horrible consequences for women. With the claim of upholding Afghan culture and observing Islamic values, men victimized horribly. During the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, violence against women increased to an unprecedented level and was used as a battlefield tactic to defeat different factions.

Although none of the warring sides respected the human rights of women, the actions of the Taliban were the most extreme. When the Taliban took over, from 1996 some people said that they brought peace and security to Afghanistan. But what kind of peace and security was it for women when they were not allowed to work? What kind of security was it when giving a girl a pencil and a notebook was considered a crime?

Today the world condemns the Taliban, but we cannot forget that the Taliban were removed from power in retaliation for the 9-11 terrorist attack on the United States and not to restore women’s rights and human rights. For years, we warned the international community that the Taliban, Al Qaeda, terrorism and production of opium posed a threat to humanity. But because the first victims were women, the world paid little attention claiming to respect the Afghan culture. Today, women’s rights and human rights issues are more visible, but still are really treated as a side issue by our government and the international community.

In Afghanistan, the women’s rights situation now is somewhat better than it has been in the last two decades of war. Women are now able to work outside of their homes, and girls can attend school. The election was a positive step toward democracy, and women’s participation was very good. It is another positive step that there are now three women in the cabinet rather than only two. Progress for women was made in our new constitution, but women’s lives have improved little, especially in conservative areas of the country.

Opponents of women’s rights remain a strong force in our country. Afghanistan is a country where the violations of women’s rights continue with impunity. Factional fighting has not ended. The Taliban have not been defeated. Women face rape and displacement in warfare. In one district, women fled the fighting with their children and ran to the river to escape being raped by military commanders and private militias. These women drowned in the river, choosing to die in this way rather than to be raped by the men. We still see local authorities imposing restrictions on women. Women aid workers have been killed by fundamentalists. Women are still stoned to death and killed in the name of honor.

The media shows thousands of girls going to school, but they do not show what the quality of education is and how many girls do not have access to education facilities. It is the lucky girl that walks for two hours with a piece of bread to get an education, but even these facilities are not available to most girls. The media also does not show the more than 30 girls’ schools that have been set on fire or bombed by fundamentalists in the past three years.

Tactics of intimidation are used to stop people and especially women from exercising their human rights. At both Loya Jirgas, women delegates were attacked and threatened with death for advocating for justice and human rights. Women are threatened and harassed daily about not wearing the clothes that some of the men like.


“Our legal system and courts are markets where ‘justice’ can be bought by the rich, while the poor suffer in silence. Women, like men, are imprisoned in horrible conditions and often detained illegally.”

Women do have the right to vote in Afghanistan, but the women did face problems during the election. For example, a bus carrying Afghan women election workers who were registering women voters was bombed by fundamentalist extremists, killing two women and injuring a dozen others. In some of the areas, women’s access to polling stations was very limited. They had to walk for hours in order to reach the polling stations. In some other areas, the male relatives voted for women or gave instructions to the women on how to vote.

Our legal system and courts are markets where “justice” can be bought by the rich, while the poor suffer in silence. Women, like men, are imprisoned in horrible conditions and often detained illegally. Female prisoners have had to give birth in detention centers, without any facilities and support. The majority of women detained are in prison for breeches of the social code, such as leaving an abusive male member of the family, rather than for any real criminal activity. Right now women have no access to justice in the courts. Even when they do go to court, they are treated as criminals rather than victims. Women cannot receive justice in our courts.

Trafficking of women and children continues. The kidnapping of children for labor, sexual exploitation, and other cruel and illegal practices happens throughout the country. People have so many children and cannot feed them. Men come to their houses and say they will take the children to madrasses where they will be educated and fed. Instead, they are selling the children outside of Afghanistan. There also are reports that some are taken to hospitals where their organs are removed and sold.

In the face of forced marriages and hopelessness about their lives, many young women are committing suicide by self-immolation. In just one province last year, 270 women set themselves on fire.

I would now like to talk about some parts of our work and how we are dealing with these issues in the current challenging situation.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission was established in June 2002 as one of the requirements of the Bonn Agreement, which set in place the interim and transitional government for Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. The Commission was initially established for two years. In January 2004, we won inclusion of the Commission in the new Afghan constitution. It is now a permanent institution to protect and promote women’s rights and human rights in the country.

First, we are advocating for increased security and disarmament in the country. One of the main reasons that advances for women’s rights and human rights in our country are so fragile is the lack of security and the absence of the rule of law. Since the day I took office as Minister of Women’s Affairs in the Afghan Interim Administration in December 2001, I – along with the Afghan government and the United Nations – have urged the expansion of international peacekeeping troops beyond Kabul as absolutely necessary to achieving sustainable peace and women’s rights in Afghanistan. But the international community’s response has been inadequate and too slow to arrive. More ISAF are still needed in the country to help with disarmament and to prepare for the parliamentary elections this year. ISAF’s mandate also needs to be expanded. They are walking in the streets and see trucks with opium, but do nothing about it because they say it is not in their mandate.

Security for women also means access to basic human rights such as education and health care, especially reproductive health care, to do work that allows them to help support themselves and their families, and to buy food and shelter. In the last 25 years, no matter who was in power, they denied women reproductive health care. As a result, most women have 8 to 10 children. Most women have never seen a doctor before and are in very poor health from all of these pregnancies. They cannot feed all of these children, and, with these children, they cannot work or take part in political activities. Having reproductive health care really is a requirement for women to be empowered. We also need training and job opportunities for women, as well as for former war combatants so they can put down their guns and see there is a future without war and to reduce poverty.


“The [Afghan] people believe there must be accountability for the human rights violations of the past and the present. ... Without accountability and without justice, the culture of impunity will continue. Security without justice is not sustainable.”

Second, our Commission’s work includes developing mechanisms for accountability for the past crimes against humanity in accordance with international law, Islamic principles, Afghan tradition and the will of the people of Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan is different from other post-conflict countries. In South Africa, for example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was successful because the power in the country had changed. The people who committed the crimes against humanity were no longer in power. In Afghanistan, we still have in power some of the same commanders who committed human rights violations and who benefit from the culture of impunity. By holding government positions now, they are even given legitimacy to continue their violations.

As a part of our national consultation process, we released our report, A Call for Justice, that represented the opinions of the Afghan people on transitional justice. We conducted interviews of 4,151 people and more than 200 focus groups involving thousands more people. Of the people surveyed, 69 percent identified themselves or immediate family members as victims of human rights violations in the course of the last two decades of conflict.

The people believe there must be accountability for the human rights violations of the past and the present. In our consultation, 76 percent of Afghans surveyed believe that bringing human rights abusers to justice will increase peace and stability in Afghanistan. Without accountability and without justice, the culture of impunity will continue. Security without justice is not sustainable.

Some people in the international community think that our silence about the past violations is necessary for the stability of the government and for security. They do not even consider the violations of women’s rights that occurred to be serious violations of human rights. We are very concerned about recent initiatives of the coalition forces that will result in amnesty for the Taliban. It is especially disturbing since 61 percent of those surveyed rejected amnesty as a solution, especially when it is imposed by outsiders.

We believe firmly that the process of accountability for past violations will strengthen the rule of law and put an end to the culture of impunity that has governed Afghanistan for decades.

Third, another part of accountability is monitoring and investigating current abuses of women’s rights and human rights. In the last year, the Commission received more than 3,000 complaints of human rights violations including extra-judicial killings, forced marriage, rape, poverty, confiscation and destruction, forced migration, torture, illegal imprisonment, kidnapping, beating, and selling of women.

The Commission has intervened successfully in some cases to prevent forced marriages. Although Afghan civil code requires mutual consent for marriage, forced marriages are prevalent and are one of the primary causes of violence against women. Often these marriages are performed on the demand of military commanders. The Commission also has worked to stop the transfer of girls and women to resolve disputes, the devastating practice known as “bad.” Domestic violence also is a human rights violation that the AIHRC investigates and for which it seeks protection and remedies for the women.

In response to reports of high numbers of cases of women setting themselves on fire in suicide attempts, the AIHRC convened a seminar on self-immolation, published a book on the topic, and made recommendations to provide more support to women and to prevent them from attempting to kill themselves.

Through its monitoring of women’s prisons, the Commission has won some improvements in conditions, including literacy and vocational training programs for women prisoners and kindergartens for their children. The situation in the jails is very bad for women and their children. The same room in a jail holds a 14-year-old girl who is running from a forced marriage, a woman who has fled an abusive husband with her children, and a woman who has been caught smuggling opium. The children are imprisoned as well as the women and are not able to go outside to play or to have an education. We have also won the release of hundreds of illegally detained prisoners, including women.


We cannot allow human rights and women’s rights to be sacrificed in Afghanistan or anywhere in the world in the name of anti-terrorism. ... As we now know, what happens in Afghanistan affects the world.

Fourth, we have also investigated complaints against the coalition forces, who in the name of combating terrorism have stormed people’s houses, conducted culturally sensitive searches of women by men, destroyed property, tortured prisoners, and illegally detained people. In Afghanistan, we have heard some of the same complaints of torture as happened to prisoners in Iraq. Our commission last year asked for access to the detention centers. A year later, they finally met with us and may allow us to go there.

Fifth, the AIHRC has worked to assess the extent of the trafficking of women and children, to educate law enforcement officials about trafficking, and to prepare a national plan of action on child trafficking. We have never had child trafficking before in Afghanistan so there were no laws. Last year we were able to get our president to issue an executive order making child trafficking a crime. A few people already have been prosecuted under the new law.

Sixth, while working to establish the rule of law, AIHRC also has led efforts to ensure that the laws protect women’s rights. The Commission was one of the primary advocates for inclusion of women’s rights in the new Afghan constitution. While the final government draft of the Constitution did not include an explicit guarantee of equal rights for women as AIHRC recommended, at the Loya Jirga, we won adoption of a provision stating that “The citizens of Afghanistan – whether man or woman – have equal rights and duties before the law.” We had to fight the fundamentalists who did not want the word woman to appear in the constitution. We did not win all of our recommendations to strengthen women’s constitutional rights, but we did at least create some space for women. Our Commission also won a provision in the constitution requiring the government to abide by the international treaties and conventions to which Afghanistan is a party, including CEDAW.

We also have submitted recommendations for changes in the civil and penal codes to the Judicial Reform Commission, which is charged with proposing new laws. Our Human Rights Commission has urged defining harassment and threats against women’s exercise of their rights as a crime. We have urged the establishment of more family courts and the enforcement of marriage registration laws. Marriage registration laws can be an important strategy to protect women against forced marriage and to protect women’s property rights in divorce and widowhood. The road ahead of us is a very long one if we are to make the equality provisions a reality for women.

Seventh, women’s political participation is crucial to effectively promote women’s rights, as well as enhancing political pluralism and culture of dialogue as basis for a democratic and inclusive society. Women must be full participants in the political, social, and economic arenas, in our country’s reconstruction, and in the world’s security bodies for the Kalashnikov and war culture to come to an end.

One of the problems with the peace process that gave birth to the new Afghan government is that the negotiations only included representatives of the different warring factions. But only three women were allowed to attend the meetings as delegates and only two women were included in the cabinet. There are three women ministers now, but they do not have the important ministries. Clearly, without the advocacy of Afghan women and women’s organizations around the world, women would not have been represented at all, but inclusion of these few women is still not enough.

One of the AIHRC’s priorities for the new constitution was the setting of quotas for women’s representation in parliament. Because of our work, the Constitution now guarantees women about 25 to 30 percent of the seats in parliament. Our Commission also had a leadership role in verification of political rights, particularly women’s voting rights, in the presidential elections.

Finally, a major goal of the Afghan Independent Human Rights is to replace the existing culture of violence with a culture of peace and respect for human rights and women’s rights. The impact of fundamentalism and the war culture in Afghanistan have caused long-lasting damage to both human rights and to the mentality of the people. Through public education programs, AIHRC is teaching people that human rights are not something imported from the West, but that these are rights with which everyone is born with throughout the world, regardless of sex, ethnicity, or economic status.

These are just some of the areas in which the Commission is most active in protecting and promoting women’s rights and human rights.

Women’s rights and human rights will not be real unless there is enough security and law enforcement in the country. At the same time, real security is not possible unless women’s rights and human rights are respected and promoted so they become a reality.

It is clear that terrorism is an enemy of everyone, particularly women. But the counter-terrorism campaign as it is being implemented also presents dangers to women’s rights, as seen by the increased fundamentalist attacks in Afghanistan against Afghan civilians and international staff and tactics such as suicide bombers, car bombs and kidnappings. We cannot allow human rights and women’s rights to be sacrificed in Afghanistan or anywhere in the world in the name of anti-terrorism. What happens in Iraq, Palestine or other places affects us in Afghanistan. As we now know, what happens in Afghanistan affects the world.

I wanted to say some words today especially for the students. Just as I never would have envisioned the role that I have today, you also may find that your lives and careers take you in new and unexpected directions. I urge you to follow your hearts and to allow your hearts to include the world. Sometimes I think of the world as a bird. If a wing or a country is broken, the bird cannot fly. As a global community, we are all responsible for treating the bird so that it will fly.

My own graduation from medical school took place in 1982, during the Soviet invasion. There was no ceremony. Thank you for allowing me to be with you today and to be part of your celebration tomorrow. I wish you the best of luck.

We must all hope for and work to make possible peace, equality, justice and a non-violent world. Thank you.


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