As the International force approaches their 2014 deadline for military withdrawal from Afghanistan, one often overshadowed aspect of the conflict is the hard-won progress made by previously marginalized segments of the Afghan population, particularly women, girls, and young people.
This country has one of the highest proportions of young people in the world. The median age of the population is 15.6 years old, the median age of marriage is 18.
“If there is no cooperation between the Afghan government, international community and the youth it will be very hard to make a better future for Afghanistan beyond 2014,” said Imad Ahmad Haroon the Afghan youth activist. He insisted, “Cooperation is the most important thing in this process.”
“While more than 70 percent of Afghanistan’s population are under 25 years of age, young peoples’ voices are rarely heard,” said Nasima Jalalzai, an Afghan youth activist based in Kabul.
“Let’s not be immature about the current reality,” she said by Skype interview with Khaama Press in Singapore. “Afghan society is conservative and hierarchical,” making it difficult for young people to contribute meaningfully to policymaking and government reform. But over the last decade, there have been improvements in schooling, health, and opportunities for young people,” she added.
“With all of these challenges, it is easy to believe that it is possible for youth to mobilize and influence the country’s future,” said Nasima. “However, I would like to challenge the popular perceptions about Afghanistan,” by showing there is “an emerging generation that is striving to transform a war-torn country into a safer, more secure, and prosperous place to live.”
She said, “Once I decided to go abroad and start new life there but I was engaging on a regular basis with a broad network of young Afghan entrepreneurs, youth activists, and civil society activists. I eventually realized that I was not alone – that my frustration was shared by many other Afghans. I realized that leaving Afghanistan was not the solution…there was simply too much at stake. I knew at a fundamental level that genuine development in Afghanistan would only be possible if the new generation could collectively advocate for a common vision, values, and goals.”
Empowering Afghan youth to advocate for them is a crucial investment for the country, said Nasima, who has since helped organize the Afghan youth for better Afghanistan (AYFBA) online network of active afghan youths.
“Youth movements are changing politics by providing a platform that ties their present and future to a stable and democratic Afghanistan – this is a generation that actively seeks to contribute to their community,” She said, adding that “This is a sector that has seen tremendous individual and collective maturity over the past decade…becoming more relevant, viable, vocal, and effective. Some youth organizations have even started refusing international funding to showcase their independence.”
Historically speaking, Afghanistan’s large proportion of young people – called a “youth bulge” by demographers – presents many challenges to achieving democracy, said Said Adib Modaser, an Afghan youth activist and international youth delegates in WCY 2014 in Sri Lanka.
Without access to education and livelihood opportunities – goals that become increasingly more difficult with each successive generation of growth –“youthful populations are statistically risky populations, and have a high risk of civil conflict and a low probability of attaining high levels of democracy,” he said.
According to Mr.Modasir, youth populations apply significant pressure to job markets that do not have the means to incorporate new workers. Faced with a large percentage of unemployed and dissatisfied young people, elites are more willing to back an authoritarian regime to maintain stability.
However, increasing levels of education for women is one of the strongest drivers of decreased fertility rates, which can put the country on track to turn a youthful population into an advantage through what demographers call the “demographic dividend.” Already there are major differences in the total fertility rate of Afghan women based on education levels (5.3 children per women for those with no education compared to 3.6 for those with a secondary education),” said Imad Ahmad Haroon, another Afghan youth activist and the international delegates of Afghanistan in world conference on youth (WCY 2014).
Further, as experience across the world has shown, when women of all education levels are given a choice in the matter, they tend to have fewer children.
The education and engagement of women is therefore central to a more peaceful and democratic Afghanistan, he said.
“Education is the only way, but increasing schooling is challenging in a country with poor infrastructure and a weak central government, especially for girls, who face a legacy of strict segregation and exclusion from the education system,” he added.
Jan’s foundation works to address the right to education in Kabul with a free private school for girls of all ages.
Expansion of education and youth engagement are positive signs for Afghanistan
According to the Afghan government, even though the anti-education elements put acid on girls and cut their throats just for going to school, they blew up vans of girls going to class but still the afghan girls are strongly committed to go to school and be part of government in the future.
Nasima said the majority of Afghans believe negotiating with the Taliban risks undermining many of the hard-fought gains of the last decade. “I can’t emphasize more the importance of education for young men and young women,” she said. “Access to quality and equitable educational opportunities will transform Afghanistan – it already has.”