As a young woman who fled Afghanistan as a little girl, growing up in the UK I have always been free to express my identity and encouraged to speak out and dream big. But for so many young people in Afghanistan, this is not the case.
Afghanistan is a country of young people, with around 65% of Afghans under 25 years of age and 85 percent under 40. Yet, these young people face significant challenges to their education, employment and equality. In the elections last year, for example,many were afraid to exercise their right to vote because of Taliban threats and bombings. Fears of attacks at polling stations led to a turnout as low as 20% in some regions. Afghan youth deserve hope, positivity and reassurance that their vote counts and that they too can dream big. Moreover, just last weekend, a young activist, serving her country, working for the Human Rights Commission in Kabul, was targeted and killed by an IED. While we may not know the perpetrators, it is clear that the young and outspoken are being targeted and silenced.
Turbulence and tragedy have engulfed the country over the last two decades which I think has shaped young Afghans’ outlook on the future of their country. Imagine growing up and all you know is war. They want peace and prosperity, which is why it is vital they are a part of the next iteration of the peace process. Excluding them will only add to the dynamics of marginalization that feed conflict and insecurity. In a context where there are little prospects to engage in the economy and politics, some young people feel that the only viable option for them is to join armed groups. Indeed, youth participation in violence has increased and they remain vulnerable to recruitment by the Taliban and other armed groups that seek to advance their political and religious ideologies. The country is still battling to combat widespread illiteracy, high levels of poverty, and lack of employment opportunities.
But in Afghanistan, the future is with the young, and their voices must be at the forefront. They will be the leaders of tomorrow. Young people are key to a peaceful future for the country. While we have to remember that the Taliban are a militant group, their young people are no different to others. They want a future, to make a mark on the world and to provide for their families. I believe to truly tackle extremism within the country, we must provide our youth with education, rights, employment opportunities and platforms to raise their voices.
In many war-torn countries, youth participation and opinion in politics is often overlooked and underutilised. Having a close connection with Afghanistan, I follow the political and societal developments on a daily basis and can see a slow shift from older generations being involved in the decision-making to the younger cohort. Around the world, we see this trend, there is a growing interest in youth and politics and many political groups are changing to respond to the growing number of young people who want a say. More young people than everbefore are engaging in local community campaigns and other political activities.
We have seen the rise and momentum of the 'Youth Voices Festival' held in Kabul every year where young people can promote peace and stability and fight for a better future. In recent years, social media and the media are recognising the plight of young people in Afghanistan, their hunger for reconciliation and it brings everyone closer to continue to fight for peace.
In 2018, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan established a Youth Consultation Council to promote youth participation in Afghanistan’s politics and society through education and vocational training. The Council creates a space for young people to discuss common goals and designs initiatives to achieve peace. This is exactly what Afghanistan needs to continue to inspire young people to be the leaders of tomorrow and speak out for their future and a peace deal with the Taliban.
The younger generations understand the power that lies within technology and social media and can see it evolving. If you look at the #MyRedLine movement, which was purely a social media campaign, it was a stand-out example of Afghan political activism in which young Afghans, stated the ‘red line’ they were not prepared to see Afghanistan cross in any eventual peace deal with the Taliban.
Khalid Noor is an example of a young voice in the negotiating team at the Afghan peace talks with the Taliban. Born in Afghanistan he now campaigns against violent extremism in the country. Noor strongly argues that if we compromise the rights of our people, an oppressive government could harm Afghanistan for generations to come. Matin Bek is also a young voice in the government's negotiating team and has repeatedly spoken out about Taliban release. Bek strongly argues that we cannot release the killers of our people, and that we do not want them to go back to the battlefield and capture provinces. Voices like Noor and Bek are crucial, as it highlights youth participation is integral to progress on peace and security within Afghanistan.
While we have seen ceasefires during Covid-19, which are always welcomed, we have to remember this is temporary. Unfortunately, the Taliban are using the pandemic to strong-arm their propaganda. They see people in crisis and weakness as targets – the fight is not yet over, but with the involvement and participation of young people, the future leaders of the country, I believe a peace deal can come together much quicker.
While I am so fortunate and thankful to have grown up in the UK – Afghanistan will always hold a special place in my heart. I can only hope that young voices are listened to and we can have peace in Afghanistan. I will continue to support those who don’t want to be silenced in this fight for peace.
Rabia Nasimi, Strategic Development Manager at the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA) now a PHD student at the University of Cambridge
For more information about Rabia Nasimi and the work of the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association, visit: https://acaa.org.uk/