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Afghan women’s rights leader: The world cannot forget us again

March 19, 2014

Emerging from more than three decades of war, oppression and isolation, the women of Afghanistan are speaking up and fighting for their rights and future, Dr. Sima Samar said during her visit to Maine this week.

But they need the support of the international community to prevent them from being forgotten again, said Dr. Samar, a prominent champion of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

“We have achieved a lot in the past 13 years, with a lot of sacrifice by the people of Afghanistan and the international community,” Dr. Samar said, referring to the period since U.S. and allied troops arrived in the country. She said more than 3 million Afghan girls are now in school, and women make up 25 percent of the Afghan Parliament, but the movement “still has a long way to go.”

Dr. Samar visited Maine on March 17-19, 2014, as the lecturer for the Justice for Women Lecture Series, hosted by the University of Maine School of Law. She participated in a number of community events, as well as delivering the lecture on the evening of March 18, to a diverse and enthusiastic crowd of more than 500 people at the Abromson Community Education Center in Portland.

Since 2004, Dr. Samar has served as chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. She is also founder of the Shuhada Organization, dedicated to the welfare and progress of Afghan citizens, with a primary focus on the empowerment of women and children. The organization operates 55 schools and 15 clinics and hospitals. Dr. Samar served in the Interim Administration of Afghanistan and established the first-ever Ministry of Women’s Affairs. She is a recipient of the Profile of Courage Award, and is one of the central subjects of the 2004 documentary, Daughters of Afghanistan.

“We lost a lot in Afghanistan,” in the past 35 years, said Dr. Samar, whose own husband was kidnapped and killed in 1979 because of his resistance against Soviet rule. “We lost our educated people. When I go anywhere, including Bangladesh and the Philippines, I see Afghans.”

The Taliban regime, which rose to power in the 1990s, “closed everything down for women,” Dr. Samar said. Women were routinely beaten in public, and local leaders ordered families to keep their windows covered, so women would not be seen. This past decade has witnessed a gradual restoration of women’s rights, particularly in education. There are shelters in the cities, to safeguard abused women and children. A new law passed in 2009 criminalized acts of violence against women, yet it is rarely implemented.

That momentum remains fragile, however. As the United States continues to draw down its military presence, Dr. Samar has urged American and international leaders to remain invested in Afghanistan, while the nascent government, Army and police forces earn the trust of the public. People in her country do not want to be ruled by outsiders, she said, but they also do not want to be isolated, opening the door to another civil war, or the resurgence of the Taliban.

During her visit to Maine, Dr. Samar spoke at Deering High School to an assembly of students from all three of the city’s high schools. Portland Mayor Michael Brennan presented her with a key to the city. She spoke to other local high school students, college students and community members at CIEE in Portland. At the Law School, Dr. Samar was the featured speaker at a lunchtime panel titled “Afghanistan Futures: Local and Global.”

The University of Maine School of Law is committed to promoting social justice in Maine and around the world. The Law School established the Justice for Women Lecture series in 2010 with leadership and support from attorney and civic leader Catherine Lee. The Lecture Series is supported in part by the generosity of community partners, including CIEE, and other donors.

Previous lecturers were the Hon. Unity Dow (2012), the first woman to serve as a judge on Botswana’s High Court; and Leymah Gbowee (2013), an activist and women’s rights advocate who won a Nobel Peace Prize for helping to end civil war in Liberia.

Learn more at “Justice For Women Lecture Series” on Facebook. For information about supporting the series, please email the law school at mainelaw@maine.edu.

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