There are few places in the world where the challenge of governance is as daunting and dangerous as in Afghanistan. A country ravaged by foreign powers, warlordism, civil war, and in 1996-2001, the regime of vicious fundamentalism under the Taliban, Afghanistan is embarked today on a perilous process of democratic state-building and development. The challenge is forbidding: widespread poverty and illiteracy, continuing disunity and violence, and the expected decline in foreign aid with the impending withdrawal of international forces. It is a place and time when true examples of hope are urgently needed.
One shining example is HABIBA SARABI, a fifty-seven-year-old doctor and mother of three, who, in a fiercely patriarchal society, is the only female governor in Afghanistan, and the first woman to hold this position in the country’s history. Of a relatively privileged background, SARABI attended university in Kabul and studied hematology in India. She was professor at the Kabul Medical Science College when the Taliban took power in 1996 and imposed draconian measures on the population, particularly women. Fleeing to Pakistan to ensure that her children could continue their education, she became a teacher and an activist. Organizing together with other Afghan women the Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA), she conducted women’s rights classes in refugee camps and organized mobile doctors to work in these camps. She also secretly traveled on foot, back and forth across the mountainous Pakistan-Afghanistan border, to supervise at great personal risk some eighty underground literacy courses in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, SARABI immediately set up the HAWCA office in Kabul, resumed teaching at the Medical Science College, and continued her volunteer work in literacy and women’s rights.
Her work brought her public notice. In 2003, SARABI was appointed to head the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and, in 2005, governor of Bamyan, a poor, agricultural province in the country’s central highlands, with a population of half a million. In these positions, SARABI vigorously pushed her advocacies for public education and women empowerment. In Bamyan, public education has not only expanded; forty-five percent of the 135,000 schoolchildren are female. In 2005, there was only one female police officer; there are now twenty, and more women are taking up careers that were forbidden in the Taliban regime. As governor, SARABI has effectively worked with various stakeholders in road construction and other infrastructure projects, agricultural development and improvement of health facilities and health workers. Recognizing Bamyan’s unique natural, historical, and archaeological assets, and their potential for eco-tourism, she pioneered in establishing the 570-kilometer Band-e-Amir National Park, Afghanistan’s first national park.
SARABI has consistently been assessed by international donor standards as among the top performers among her peers in local government. Bamyan has benefitted from budgetary rewards resulting from such recognition. In the Afghan context of continuing violence, political uncertainty, and weak institutions, SARABI’s accomplishments are truly inspiring. A member of an ethnic and religious minority—she is a Hazara and a Shi’ite—SARABI lives and works in a society where ethnic conflicts are deadly; and in the face of widespread hostility towards women assuming public roles, her courage and determination are astounding. Asked what drives her, she says, simply but firmly, “I’m not a warlord. I’m just a modern woman.”
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.
Salamaalakum…. And Good Afternoon! Please accept the warm greetings of the Afghan people and the government.
I feel very honored and proud to be selected for this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award. I would like to sincerely thank this esteemed Foundation for the recognition. I also want to thank those who believed in me and my work and nominated me.
This Award also is your recognition of the citizens of Afghanistan, and especially women who have dedicated their lives and services to building our country through their daily hard work with great honor, dignity and perseverance.
As citizens of the world, we can aspire to live a happy and simple life and yet achieve great heights. That is what President Ramon Magsaysay, as well those who lived during his generation, proved. In today’s complex world ravaged by geo-political interests and conflicts resulting in economic hardships to the poor, we need to emulate such values of humility, simplicity, justice and dignity.
I feel honored because with this Award, I am also being associated with my personal passion and goal for a greater role for women in my transitioning country. Women in Afghanistan today have risen above the confines of their homes. We have now prominent women politicians fighting for equality, housewives and businesswoman who are successful in their own rights, and activists and human rights champions who are working with a very proactive civil society. Within the government bureaucracy itself, we have raised ourselves above common expectations and worked hard to promote balanced development and good governance. That is why I feel this Award recognizes all of these achievements.
In accepting this Award, I call upon the people and governments of our two countries to further strengthen the bonds of friendship. Our two nations are located in the same continent, and we are bound much closer than we sometimes like to imagine.
Upon returning to my country, one message I want to take back is the importance of selflessness in public service. I want to convey to my friends, colleagues and the youth that we should never be selfish in our dedication to serve the people, even when we are faced with adversaries and challenges.
I will convey to my government to operationalize various good legislations that have been put in place so that they support wholesome development in a transitioning society. And I want to tell Afghan women to continue their quest for knowledge and learning to be competitive.
Within a year, my country will witness a turning point in our history. Again, women will be subjected to great tests. This period, without doubt, is a confusing period of uncertainty for us. But I am convinced that Afghans, both men and women, will prevail and democracy will succeed ultimately.
In conclusion, I like to say that this Award is one that I will cherish in my current work and future aspirations. The messages that this Award conveys will help me to commit myself to work harder to build an efficient bureaucracy and support a vibrant democracy in my country. In my humble words, I hope to serve as a role model to young men and women.
Last but not least, let me express that I commit myself to live up to the expectations and ideals of this esteemed Ramon Magsaysay Award, and I thank you once again for this great honor.