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Afghan Youth Fight For Their Future

20 Aug 2021
By Dr Helen Berents and Savannah Spalding
A young Afghan woman speaks at the Afghan Youth Voices Festival. Source: Afghan Youth Voices Festival

The always fragile hope for peace that many Afghans have had, has been dealt a significant blow. What this looks like for young peacebuilders’ work going forward is uncertain.

As the international community abandons Afghanistan again, there has been a lot of attention on “rescuing” diplomats and members of the international community, and about the imminent and serious risks facing Afghan women. Less discussed has been the impacts of recent events on youth activists and human rights advocates, who have been working committedly for peace and security for years.

Over the past six months our youth-led research team has spoken with many young Afghan peacebuilders as part of a multi-country project on youth inclusion in peace processes, supported by the international peacebuilding NGO Search for Common Ground. Peace work has always been precarious for youth, but recent events emphasise just how precarious it has been in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is one of the world’s youngest countries, with youth under 25 making up 64 percent of the population. This means almost two-thirds of the country has been born since the US invasion in 2001, and Afghan youth know what it means to see incremental improvements and fragile change. In this dangerous time, youth who work as peacebuilders, human rights defenders, journalists, and educators are deeply fearful for their safety and lives.

The Taliban announced on Tuesday that they will respect women’s rights, although added this will be within of their interpretation of Sharia Law, and assured those who worked against the Taliban there will not be retaliation. There is justifiable scepticism around these claims. Afghan women and youth activists remain deeply uncertain about these promises and fearful about their future.

The consequences of youth exclusion

Youth have born the cost of conflict for decades in Afghanistan. As a young man described:

youth are the main source of wood for burning the fire of war in Afghanistan; on both the government side and the Taliban the majority on the battlefield are youth.

Despite their presence on the battlefield, and in more peaceful pursuits, they have been largely overlooked.

Earlier this year, in the context of the faltering, problematic peace process, youth peacebuilders identified youth exclusion as a key issue to the long-term success of any peace deal. If youth do not feel included and there are no opportunities for them, they would not see the value of seeking peace. As one young man explains:

[Youth] need real representatives who are talking on behalf of people. Not the elites and [those] who are living in urban areas, but the whole youth who have been involved in insecurity, who have lost their loved ones, who have lived under the opposition groups, who have experienced harsh situations.

Youth were angry that the peace talks were just a “pie-cutting exercise” for those who already had power. One young woman argued peace negotiations were not political for youth, but about survival:

Our authorities, the government, elders, they see building peace and the whole peace process as a political issue. Well, it’s not a political issue for young people, it’s a humanitarian issue. It is an issue of death and life, it’s an issue of our survival, our future. They do not recognize that anything without youth is not for youth. And what you decided there at the table, will impact generations from now, will have impact on the way the young people will be living in the future.

Hope for a substantive peace deal has been shattered by events of this week. Yet the observation about the consequences of youth exclusion holds true, and the cost of this next phase will also be measured in the lives of young Afghans.

Consequences of abandoning youth

In the current context, the risks for youth are even further heightened. For those who were building peace, their lives are at risk. For those youth living in rural areas of Afghanistan, their options have become even more limited than before, and there is no hope that the government may one day provide the promised services, jobs, or opportunities. In this environment it is likely we will see more youth drawn to the Taliban and other extremist groups.

There is a tendency to stereotype youth as predisposed to violence and inherently likely to participate in conflict. However, as the young peacebuilders explained, it is not the young people themselves but rather the system that has failed them. As one young woman explained:

Young Taliban and most of the marginalized parts of the country [are] often excluded from important decision-making processes. They are not as privileged as young people living in Kabul city, and the capital cities around the country. And most of them are recruited easily by the insurgent groups just because they are not educated… Most importantly, when there are drone strikes in villages and in marginalized parts of the country, they get a sense that the government and international community is against them.

When a national government cannot provide infrastructure, or when the international community abnegates its responsibilities, and when faced with hunger and poverty and marginalisation, it is not surprising that youth join extremist groups to provide security or even just food for their families. Youth peacebuilders know this. They’ve been telling us, alongside other experts, for years.

Youth as change-makers

The chance that existed for any kind of peace did not just rest on US troops, but rather always was present as potential in the youth of Afghanistan. Alongside women, human rights defenders, and other peacebuilders of all ethnicities and backgrounds, youth have been working tirelessly for a more peaceful and secure future for their country.

As one young man explained,

Youth have the energy, the optimism and the capacity to engage. If the government can understand this and the international community can support this, they can be a catalyst of change, they can be change makers.

Although the context has changed, the urgent need for international support is more crucial than ever.

Young Afghans dreamed of a more peaceful future, and have been actively building it too. Young people have established projects spanning childhood literacy initiatives, women’s empowerment training, securing safe access for sexual and reproductive health provision in remote areas, and skills development for lobbying and advocacy. Youth have led the creation of platforms for intra-youth and intergenerational dialogue, art-based peacebuilding programs, diversion programs for youth at risk of recruitment by armed groups, and more.

One young man explained the impact of this work,

There are hundreds or thousands of civil society organisations that are run or led by Afghan youth which are active on the ground. They have a tremendous role in terms of in terms of conflict resolution, preventing violent extremism. The Afghan youth contributed in many ways… Civil society organisations and the civic engagement of youth has contributed tremendously to preventing violence in the country.

Now, young women and men who have worked for peace are scared, many are in hiding, terrified of what the coming days and weeks will bring. One young woman told a foreign news show she was waiting for the knock on her door – it was not if the Taliban come, but when.

What is unfolding in Afghanistan now is not the future these young people were working for. Youth activists are now more at risk than ever. Young people will not stop their work in this new context, they will just have to adapt. Young Afghans and their allies are calling on the international community more than ever to support and protect them as they do it. Those who have worked so hard for their country and remain in Afghanistan must not be abandoned.

The impacts of the past week will have consequences that will reverberate through generations. Governments, international organisations, and civil society organisations can commit to supporting these brave young peace advocates and human rights defenders as they continue to work to build the future they want and deserve.

Dr Helen Berents is an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow in the School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology. Her DECRA project, “Youth Leadership and the Future of Peace and Security,” examines the role of youth-led advocacy in the context of peacebuilding. She is co-lead with Dr Caitlin Mollica on the project “Youth Participation and Peace Processes,” a youth-led, adult-supported research project in partnership with international peacebuilding NGO, Search for Common Ground. @hmberents

Savannah Spalding is a Youth Researcher and Country Lead—Afghanistan for the project “Youth Participation and Peace Processes.” She is a Law and Justice student at the Queensland University of Technology.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.