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Afghan doctor wins alternative Nobel Prize

The Afghan doctor Sima Samar has won the 2012 Alternative Nobel Prize. The award committee praised her commitment to the poor and her support for education, equality and human rights.

When the Afghan physician Sima Samar learned that she was the recipient of this year's Alternative Nobel Prize, the 55-year-old reacted with the utmost humility in a statement sent to the Swedish award committee: "I must say that in my own view I have done nothing exceptional; however, the circumstances under which I work are indeed extraordinarily difficult."

It was precisely these circumstances that prompted the Stockholm-based committee to award the prize to Samar for her decades-long efforts "under constant danger to her life" and her "courage and commitment in one of the world's most unstable regions."

With their selection of Samar, the Alternative Nobel committee pre-empted their "regular" Nobel Prize colleagues in Oslo, where the Afghan doctor is also on the short list of favorites for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, which is scheduled to be announced in two week's time.

Humble, straightforward, intractable

In Afghanistan, Samar is known as the "doctor of the poor," as a woman who has dedicated her life to educating those on the fringes of society and to pursuing equality for women and universal human rights.

Afghan women beggers sit on the ground in front of Jame mosque during Eid Al-Adha in Herat Photo: Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

Equality in Afghanistan often exists only on paper

From the very beginning, it has never been easy for Sima Samar. She belongs to the frequently oppressed Hazara Shi'ite minority in Afghanistan. She managed to earn her degree in medicine at the University of Kabul in the early 1980s, but had to flee to neighboring Pakistan after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Her husband had been kidnapped shortly before and has never been seen since. Samar spent a total of 17 years in exile in Pakistan, where, for a long time, she worked as a doctor in an Afghan refugee camp.

In the Pakistani frontier city of Quetta, she set up the first clinic for Afghan women and children in 1987. Two years later, she founded the Shuhada Organization, which now runs more than a hundred schools and 15 hospitals and outpatient clinics on both sides of the border.

Even after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, Samar continued with her medical treatment and schooling of women and children. Following the US invasion in 2001 and the ousting of the Taliban, she returned to Afghanistan and became the minister for women's affairs in the transitional government. In 2002, however, she resigned and instead took over as chairwoman of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). She has often been at odds since then with the government of President Hamid Karzai due to her probing questions, comments and reports.

The prize is a signal

Afghan girl students are studying in a school in Ghazni province, Afghanistan; Photo: AEP

Education is the key to development, says Samar

Due to these circumstances, Thomas Ruttig from the Afghanistan Analysts Network, and other experts, called the award to Samar "richly deserved." Her human rights commission, Ruttig notes, is "increasingly working in an unfriendly environment."

The government of President Karzai, for example, has prevented the publication of commission reports on issues, like war crimes committed by the Mujahedeen. Unfortunately, too, support for the commission by the West has dropped off more and more over the last several years. "Therefore, the prize is also a political signal not to forget Afghanistan in the wake of Western troop withdrawals," Ruttig said. Many of the country's problems have yet to be solved, he added.

Sima Samar agrees. Despite her years of involvement, the situation of women in Afghanistan is still difficult, she says. Equality is now anchored in the Afghan constitution, but its implementation faces huge barriers. The issue of human rights, in general, is also problematic, she notes.

But, for Samar, the most important thing is the expansion of the education sector. Schools and training are "the key to a flourishing society with less poverty and more respect for human rights," she emphasizes. Despite all the existing problems in her country, Samar said she was optimistic: The country has gone through many a difficult situation "and we have survived," she said. "We are going to survive this as well."

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