When Russia invaded Afghanistan, Sima Samar was 25, fresh from her bachelor of medicine programme at Kabul University. But as the war raged, she and her family fled to Pakistan in 1982. She would soon start practising medicine; she established a clinic in Quetta, Pakistan, for Afghan women. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, she returned to Afghanistan to a cabinet post in the Hamid Karzai government and became the first minister for women's affairs.
Now, as chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, she gives special attention to women. “They have become silent and invisible casualities of the war,” Samar told THE WEEK in an interview from Kabul. Excerpts:
You released a report last year which said that trafficking is rampant in Afghanistan. What are the main reasons for trafficking?
Trafficking is a lucrative global business. More than 12 million people are trafficked each year worldwide for variety of purposes, such as forced labour, abuse and prostitution. Like in many other countries, trafficking is happening in Afghanistan, too. We are sad about the reports that a large number of women are being trafficked abroad. They are being exploited and abused. There is a taboo on such topics in our country. No one wants to talk about this.
Why is it a taboo subject?
In the Afghan culture, there is no bigger shame to a family than that of a female member running away or just dating. Forget being cheated into sex trade. Women are reluctant to report sexual exploitation not only because of the shame and stigma, but also because they will be killed by their families for breaking the family honour.
What makes Afghan women vulnerable?
Poverty, local traditions and, most importantly, the unabated war. Early and forced marriages are also a major factor. According to our study, about 81 per cent of the victims of trafficking got married before 18, of whom about 50 per cent were married before 15. And, among the victims, there were girls who were given to marriage when they were only two years old. In some cases, girls were forced into marriage to resolve family disputes.
Is there an organised mafia behind the trafficking?
Yes, human trafficking is not one man's work. You need a network. Traffickers made fake passports and permits to smuggle women across the borders. Corruption is also the grease that facilitates human trafficking, as people in authority like police and border guards turn a blind eye in exchange for bribes.
Why is the government silent?
Afghanistan is a country at war; the priority is to deal with the Taliban.
The Afghan government claims that it is working for the welfare of women. Has the condition of women improved since the fall of the Taliban?
No doubt. The new Afghan constitution has removed discrimination against women and has guaranteed their representation in the parlia-ment. Today, our parliament has 25 per cent of the seats reserved for women. But, if you look at the bigger picture, it is grim and sad. Life has been so difficult for women.
I remember when I was in Kabul University in 1975 we all had fun. I was in the Sharia department, yet we wore short skirts. My daughter could not believe it when she saw pictures from my college days.
Why has there been a sudden rise in self-immolation bids by women?
This is something we have not seen in Afghanistan [earlier]. Today, we have cases where desperate women commit suicide in this gruesome way. They do it [to escape] physical or sexual violence. Some women find it the final way to escape bad situations.