Interview with Sima Samar, Minister of Women's Affairs

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

KABUL, 22 Jan 2002 (IRIN) - After a month in power, Afghanistan's new Women's Affairs Minister, Sima Samar told IRIN in the capital Kabul that while some men were beginning to wake up to women's rights there remained a great deal of work to be done. Returning from the United States after nearly a decade, the doctor-turned-politician is also deputy chair of the interim administration.

QUESTION: Are there many women returning to work?

ANSWER: Most of the women don't know that the 1961 constitution of Afghanistan is stipulating women's rights. We have to raise awareness and talk about this constitution and ask women to come back. I am actively lobbying with the other ministries to hire women and promote them and to employ those applicable in decision making roles. If they are only employed as secretaries or receptionists then we will not move forward.

In general, attitudes have changed. A university lecturer came to see me and said she was able to resume her job that she was in before the Taliban. So men are employing women. But it will be a slow process to change some attitudes. A lady told me that she was about to leave the house without her burkha [traditional female garment covering the wearer from head to toe] and her seven-year-old son told her not to. This was because he feared for his mother's life. He had heard about the way Taliban beat and harassed women who didn't wear the burkha. It takes time to change thoughts. It won't happen overnight.

Q: How have your male colleagues helped to get women reintegrated?

A: The education minister and the minister for higher education came to me and said that they wanted to employ a woman as their deputy. The minister for communications said he had already promoted five of the women working for him to a higher level. The minister for martyrs and the disabled also came to me and said he wanted some strong women too.

The other major problem is that salaries have not been paid for the past six months. I thought this money from the donors would be in Afghanistan before 22 December. We have to pay people and if we don't take action now it will be very difficult for people to trust us.

If we want this government to be successful we need money. If we speak about ensuring security, we need money. If we want to help women then we need money. We need to create job opportunities to give them confidence and give them their pride back. We also need the money in order to furnish the office. We still don't have a proper office and no computers. I can't employ staff until I have somewhere to put them.

Q: How are you going to reintegrate women back into society?

A: Women have lost out on years of education and we need to provide them with consolidated projects to teach them skills such as short-term management courses, accountancy courses and computer training, in order to give them a jump start. Girls cannot go back to the grade that they were in when they left schools before the Taliban came. There should be separate classes for them so they don't have to spend years catching up. The international community needs to help us fund these type of projects for women.

Q: How are you going to improve human rights for women?

A: We need increased awareness. I am always raising women's issues during meetings. Even the male cabinet members sometimes forget because they are not used to having women there. When they address the ministers, they often refer to all of us as brothers. But Mr Karzai reminds them not to forget about the women in the cabinet, referring to us as sisters. When we received Mr Colin Powell with Mr Karzai and Mr Brahimi, I was waiting for Mr Powell to raise the women's issue but nobody mentioned anything so I wrote a note to Mr Karzai to remind him.

Q: What does your role as deputy chair of the interim administration involve and how are you balancing it with your other ministerial role?

A: They have given me education, health, social affairs and higher education, under the role of deputy chair. Practically, the workload has not increased just yet. But I am really concentrating on the women's issues.

Q: Is there a certain amount of nervousness about going too far too quickly with women's rights from within the cabinet?

A: Partially. Men are not used to speaking about women's rights and I keep pushing. It will take time and we need to be sensitive about changing people's attitudes. I would suggest that we could do with some gender training for men in the country.

Q: How big a problem is domestic violence?

A: It is a big problem. Many women have visited me with stories. Recently one girl told me about her father sexually abusing her. These women need protection and we need to work on this. Tackling this problem and bringing it to people's attention will take time and it cannot be done in six months.

Q: What role can women play in reconstruction?

A: First of all I am trying to find female engineers for the reconstruction ministry and I have already discussed small projects for female returnees. When we give them materials to build their homes, the women should also sign for them and be involved in the process. This will give the wife a share in the property and this is just one example. Women are already moving into the education and health sector and this is part of the reconstruction process.

Q: Where does the future of women in Afghanistan lie?

A: I am pushing for women to be part of the Loya Jirga [grand assembly] and advocating for 50 percent representation for women. But if it turns out to be 20 percent or 25 percent, that is better than nothing. Mr Brahimi suggested two women, but we need more. I think five or six women out of a total of 21 would be a good start.

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Source: Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a project the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.

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