Ramon magsaysay awards First female Afghan governor defies the odds

Patricia Esteves (The Philippine Star) - August 28, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - In a country where women are maimed, beaten or poisoned to keep them from receiving education, one woman defied the odds to become Afghanistan’s first and only female governor.

Meet Habiba Sarabi, a 57-year-old doctor who gave new meaning to female empowerment in a largely oppressive and highly patriarchal society such as Afghanistan.

Sarabi is one of this year’s recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay award for helping build a functioning local government and pushing for education and women’s rights in Afghanistan’s Bamyan province despite discrimination and poverty.

In an interview, Sarabi admitted that she continues to receive threats from armed groups who oppose the idea of girls being educated and women taking higher office in government.

“I receive letters threatening me, even the security department warned me to be careful, but I’m not afraid of them. The threats will never stop me. It is better to die for the right way, for the right cause,” Sarabi told The STAR.

It saddens her how terrorists treat women who try to get some education. They poison their water, throw acid at their faces and beat them to death.

An example is the plight of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani pupil and education activist who was shot by the Taliban while returning home on a school bus.

“Hopefully, with me as an example, people will acknowledge in my country that women can contribute for the betterment of the society. No one can ignore the power of women to change the society. I’ve proved that as a woman, I did well,” she said.

War-torn Afghanistan has long been mired in deep poverty and once dominated by the ruthless Taliban who strongly oppose educating women.

But with the support of western nations, particularly the US, Afghanistan’s political landscape is changing.

Sarabi acknowledged major hurdles like poverty and illiteracy, not to mention threats of violence from armed groups.

She said the tasks are daunting but they can be overcome.

Sarabi came a long way to become Afghanistan’s first and only female governor.

To the manor born, she attended a prestigious university in Kabul. She took her medical studies in India and specialized in hematology. After medical school, she taught at Kabul Medical Science where she focused on population, particularly women.

In 1996, when the Taliban ruled and forbade all women to have education, she and her family fled to Pakistan.

“I wanted my three children to have access to education. I know that education is empowering, so we moved to Pakistan,” she said.

In Pakistan, she became a teacher and activist. Together with other Afghan women, she organized the Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA), where she conducted women’s rights classes in refugee camps and mobilized doctors to work and assist in these camps.

To reach more women in Pakistan, Sarabi visited the mountainous Pakistan-Afghanistan border to oversee 80 underground literacy courses for women, despite the danger of being caught and killed by the Taliban. Unmindful of the risks, Sarabi did this for years in secrecy.

In 2001, when the Taliban was toppled, to Sarabi and other women’s great joy and relief, she established the HAWCA office in Kabul. She also resumed teaching at the Medical Science College, and continued her volunteer work in literacy and women’s rights.

Her efforts were not lost on the government. In 2003, she was appointed to head the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Two years later, she was appointed governor of Bamyan, an impoverished agricultural province in the country’s central highlands, with a population of 500,000.

In Bamyan, everyone was treated equally and given equal opportunities. Women were encouraged to study and given options on their career paths.

Jobs usually reserved for men were taken by women. Policewomen were increased from one to 20 in 2005.

Public education has not only expanded; 45 percent of the 135,000 school pupils are female.

Sarabi also worked with various stakeholders in road construction and other infrastructure projects, agricultural development and improvement of health facilities.

She also utilized and developed the 570-kilometer Band-e-Amir National Park, Afghanistan’s first national park to lure tourists to her town, in a bid to generate more funds for the city.

Her integrity was noticed by international donors who rated her as among the top performers among her peers in local government.

Despite the continuing violence, political uncertainty, weak institutions and hostility toward women assuming public roles, Sarabi soldiers on, undaunted by fears of a Taliban attack.

“I’m not a warlord, I’m just a modern woman,” said Sarabi when asked what motivates her to continue what she’s doing.

At the end of her tenure, Sarabi said she wants people to remember her as “someone who brought change into their lives.”

“I want them to know that I could help them,” she said.

Asked what she plans to do with her prize money from the Ramon Magsaysay award, Sarabi said she will fund the scholarship of two young people from her village.

“Likewise, I will fund the medical studies of a poor but deserving student in our village,” she said.

Her dream is to see more Afghan women in school without being threatened or attacked.

She did not regret that she moved to Pakistan during the Taliban rule so that her three children could study.

“I am very proud of my daughter, she finished a degree in Germany and now she’s in the US for her doctorate. It’s a dream that I want for other Afghan women,” Sarabi said.

In electing Habiba Sarabi to receive the 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes her bold exercise of leadership to build up a functioning local government against great odds – intractable political adversities, a harsh and

impoverished environment, and pervasive cultural discrimination – serving her people with a hopeful persistence grounded in her abiding commitment to peace and development in Afghanistan.

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