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For woman minister, rebuilding Afghanistan is a personal quest

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When delegations of tribal leaders file in to greet Dr. Sima Samar, they offer the deference due a government minister - one who just may be the most powerful woman in Afghanistan.

But it's a lonely position: Not one woman could be found among the processions that came on a recent morning to recite glowing odes to Ms. Samar, Afghanistan's first minister of women's affairs. The men celebrated her arrival - but left their wives and daughters home.

Among the daunting challenges that Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai will face in the next few months - from spending international donors' funds wisely to strengthening law and order in a still-fractious country - is getting women back into public life after years of being barred from it.

And, Karzai may have to work hard to make sure Samar, internationally renowned for her work in education, health, and human rights, stays in the picture.

"I'll see how positive I can be in this government. If I can't do much, I won't stay," Samar says in her first appointment of the day, which will soon be filled with tribal leaders from various parts of Afghanistan.

Scores of men wrapped in striped silk turbans and tan wool blankets file into her home's receiving room, and as they arrive, she covers her short, brown hair with the gossamer white headscarf she had let slip down to her shoulders.

A natural choice

When Afghani-stan's interim government was inaugurated in December, there was no question that Samar deserved to be one of the two women in the cabinet - and the only female deputy prime minister. Samar, a physician, opened four hospitals, 10 clinics and 48 schools in Pakistan and Aghanistan - often in defiance of the Taliban's ban on the very presence of women on the job or girls in the classroom.

In a recent interview, however, she said she still had not been assigned an appropriate building to house her ministry. And, concerned that women's issues could be given token treatment by the government, she says she will not stay in the cabinet if she cannot make an impact.

Four other government ministers - all of them Afghan professionals returned from abroad - express similar doubts as to whether they will continue in their posts past the mandate of the interim government, which ends in June.


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