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BU’s Global Health Initiative presents Afghan champion of human rights

Sima Samar to talk about women’s health issues

Michael Grodin, professor of health law, bioethics and human rights, meets with Sima Samar. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The West has been misled, says Sima Samar, founder and chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), by stories of the successful rebuilding of a government in Afghanistan. The 49-year-old doctor, activist, and champion of women’s rights argues that things are getting worse, not better. She says that in 1982, when she graduated from medical school, it was easier for women to find training as medical doctors than it is today.

“The job of rebuilding is not done,” says Samar, who will speak at the Medical Campus this week as the first Distinguished Visiting Scholar in Global Health of the Boston University Global Health Initiative (GHI). “We are at the beginning.”

Gerald Keusch, Medical Campus assistant provost for global health, associate dean for global health at the School of Public Health, and GHI director, describes Samar as a champion of human rights. “She has put herself on the line to provide equality in health care for women and education for girls in her country of Afghanistan,” he says. “Her visit provides the opportunity to share our visions for a better world and engage in solidarity to make it happen. Her humanity and her humility are an inspiration to us all.”

Samar, who fled Afghanistan in 1984, spent 17 years in exile in Pakistan, where she founded a hospital for Afghani refugee women and children. In 1989, she founded the Shuhada Organization, which supports 12 clinics and 4 hospitals in Afghanistan and Pakistan, all dedicated to providing health care for Afghani women and girls. In early 2001, Shuhada opened the Science Institute in Pakistan to train women and men as physician assistants, science teachers, and emergency medical technicians. In December 2001, Samar returned to Afghanistan to serve as deputy prime minister and minister of women’s affairs for the country’s interim government. While in that position, she established Afghanistan’s first Ministry of Women’s Affairs. She is now chair of the AIHRC and last year was appointed as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Sudan.

Samar says the current Afghan government, which depends on outside donors for 95 percent of the funding for its budget, has just begun to address such issues as lack of clean water and shortage of food. Unclean water contributes to the spread of typhoid and malaria, she says, and the lack of food is exacerbated by cultural traditions that require a family to feed men first and women and children with leftovers.

Next on the list of health needs, says Samar, is a lack of health-care workers or security for clinics and hospitals. “Right now,” she says, “there are no basic services for most Afghanis.” The only Afghanis who get adequate health care are those with enough money to travel to Pakistan or Kasakstan. “The rest,” she says, “are just waiting for God’s will.”

For women, finding health care is even more difficult than it is for men, says Samar, because there are relatively few female doctors, or doctors who would advise women about family planning options. The typical family has six children.

Another widespread health problem is depression, often brought on by the trauma of war and a lifetime of poverty. Samar says that for women, forced marriages and domestic violence also contribute to their likelihood of becoming depressed or drug-addicted. Heroin in Afghanistan is nearly inescapable, fueled by the proximity of poppy-producing operations. In many areas it is the only place people can find work.

The challenge to solving these problems is their interconnectedness, she says. Clean water and electricity are important, but simply building infrastructure will not help unless there are educated people available to provide services. Before any one of these problems can be solved, says Samar, the country needs to do a proper assessment of the problems, and that is now being done by the AIHRC.

The Global Health Initiative at Boston University was established to promote multidisciplinary research, education, outreach, and policy studies across and beyond the University community and to contribute to reducing disparities in health through the generation of new knowledge and the development of partnerships with global health leaders, scholars, and practitioners around the world. The GHI Distinguished Visiting Scholar in Global Health Program provides a framework for developing important new collaborations and partnerships between BU and leaders in health and science across the globe.

Samar’s lecture, The Hidden War: Obstacles to Healthcare for Afghan Women, is free and open to the public; she will speak from 5:15 to 6:30 p.m. tomorrow, Tuesday, May 9, at 670 Albany St., on the Medical Campus.