Afghan Woman Physician wins John Humphrey Freedom Award

Dr. Sima Samar has been selected as this year’s John Humphrey Freedom Award recipient for her efforts to strengthen the human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan and in refugee camps on the Northern border of Pakistan.

MONTREAL, 05 July, 2001 ? Dr. Sima Samar has been selected as this year’s John Humphrey Freedom Award recipient for her efforts to strengthen the human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan and in refugee camps on the Northern border of Pakistan.

The Award, which is given each year by Rights & Democracy (International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development), includes a $25,000 grant and a speaking tour of Canada, and is named in honour of John Peters Humphrey, the Canadian who prepared the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It will be presented in Montreal on Monday, December 10, 2001, International Human Rights Day. Following the Award ceremonies in Montreal, Dr. Samar will also travel to other cities in Canada to meet with students, representatives of human rights groups, churches, government and the media.

In the face of repeated death threats, Dr. Samar defies the ruling Taliban’s edicts that deny women and girls their basic rights to education, employment, mobility and medical care. From the time the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996, Dr. Samar has been operating schools for girls and health clinics in many of the provinces of Afghanistan as well as in the refugee camps in Quetta, Pakistan.

Dr. Samar obtained a degree in medicine in 1984 from Kabul University. She fled Afghanistan following the Russian invasion and worked as a doctor in a refugee camp in Pakistan, where in 1987 she opened a hospital. Today she runs four hospitals and three clinics in Afghanistan and another hospital in Quetta. Dr. Samar also runs schools in rural Afghanistan for more than 17,400 students as well as a school for refugee girls in Quetta attended by over 1,000 girls. Dr. Samar’s literacy programs are accompanied by distribution of food aid and information on hygiene and family planning. Services also include medical outreach workers who go door to door. She is also part of the international network Women Living Under Muslim Laws, which has links in 40 countries and is a powerful voice at the UN.

Dr. Samar refuses to accept that women must be kept in purdah (secluded from the public) and speaks out against the wearing of the burqa (head-to-foot wrap). She also has drawn attention to the fact that many women in the area are suffering from osteomalacia, a softening of the bones, due to an inadequate diet. Wearing the burqa reduces exposure to sunlight and aggravates the situation for women suffering from osteomalacia.

“We hope that this international Award will help provide some form of protection to Dr. Samar who faces a real personal danger in providing health and education services to Afghan women and girls. Her courage inspires us all to continue to struggle for a peaceful resolution to the situation in Afghanistan” said Warren Allmand, President of Rights & Democracy, upon announcing the decision of the jury.

The international jury for the John Humphrey Freedom Award, which met in June to consider over 80 nominations from around the world, is composed of five members of Rights & Democracy’s Board of Directors: Sofia Macher – Secretary General of the Coordinadora Nacional de los Derechos Humanos del Peru, a network of 50 human rights groups working to promote human rights and public education; Kathleen Mahoney – Professor of Law at the University of Calgary in Alberta and Chairperson of Rights & Democracy’s Board of Directors; David Matas ? Lawyer practicing in Winnipeg, Manitoba and former President of the Canadian Council of Refugees; Vitit Muntarbhorn – professor at the Faculty of Law of Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and consultant with UNICEF and other UN agencies on children’s rights issues; and Willy Munyoki Mutunga – Lawyer, Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission and Co-Chair of the Citizens Coalition for Constitutional Change. Dr. Sima Samar was nominated by Sally Armstrong, Editor-at-large of Chatelaine Magazine in Canada.

Civil war broke out in Afghanistan in 1979 after Soviet troops invaded the country to back the communist government in power. Islamic and tribal groups opposed to the policies of the communist government and the Soviet occupation responded in an armed opposition, which was backed by the US and its European allies, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Soviets withdrew in 1989 and the communist government fell in 1992. Despite the formation of an interim coalition government, political authority was weak and unstable and Afghanistan sank into chaos. At the end of 1994, a new political and military force, the Taliban, captured large areas of the country from the armed opposition forces.

More than one million civilians have been killed during the past two decades of civil war in Afghanistan. There are over 2 million Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan, making Afghans the largest single refugee group in the world. Outside political and military interference is recognized as a critical factor in the perpetuation of the conflict and human rights abuses. In response to criticism about its discrimination against women, the Taliban claim their policies are in accordance with Islamic law and Afghan culture. However, there are many Muslim individuals and organizations and countries who have disputed the Taliban’s negative interpretation of Islam.

Previous John Humphrey Award winners are Reverend Timothy Njoya of Kenya (2000); Dr. Cynthia Maung and Min Ko Naing of Burma (1999); Palden Gyatso of Tibet (1998); Father Javier Giraldo and the Comision Intercongregacional de Justicia y Paz of Colombia (1997); women’s rights activist and lawyer Sultana Kamal of Bangladesh (1996); Bishop Carlos F. X. Belo of East Timor (1995); the Campaign for Democracy of Nigeria and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (1994), the Plateforme des organismes ha?tiens de d?fense des droits humains (1993); and the Instituto de Defensa Legal of Peru (1992).