Empower and Educate Afghanistan’s Youth to Ensure a Peaceful Future

Afghanistan has made great progress over the past two decades toward empowering women, strengthening democracy, improving access to health care and providing education to millions of children. International donors have had a direct impact on the lives of many Afghans, offering us opportunities for economic growth as we strive for human rights and dignity.

Yet much more work is needed to transform our nation into a functioning democracy. Luckily, we can count on a young population that is eager to contribute; its involvement in the country’s social, economic and political life will determine our ability to succeed. We must ensure that our young people are given the opportunities to take charge, and education is key in this endeavor.

Today, over 27.5 million Afghans — more than half of the country’s population — are younger than 25. They have come of age in an era of hard-won democratic gains, increasingly hopeful and unwilling to relive the tragedies of their parents’ war-torn generation. Many of these young citizens live in cities. They grew up with cellphones, the internet and access to information.

But major obstacles are blocking progress. Parts of the country remain under Taliban rule, and constant fighting between the militant Islamic group and government forces has killed and displaced many people. After President Trump in September called off negotiations with Taliban leaders to end America’s military involvement in the country, peace seems more distant than ever. Human rights groups continue to denounce injustices across the country, and little accountability exists for perpetrators of violence against women and children.

The presidential election on Sept. 28 — in which incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his government’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, both claimed victory — took place amid the threat of terrorist attacks, accusations of electoral fraud and historically low voter turnout. It is easy to see why many young Afghans might have lost faith in the old guard’s ability to make wise decisions about our country.

Data from the World Bank shows that approximately eight million young Afghan workers entered the labor market in 2018 amid low literacy levels and few employment options. Our leaders should pay closer attention to the quality and quantity of education, vocational training and jobs available to citizens. A skilled and thriving work force is one of our biggest weapons in the fight against terrorism and backwardness.

As peace negotiations between the United States and the Taliban stall, we should also reflect on what young people can bring to the process. Until now, political leaders have tried to conduct negotiations as they have in the past: solely for their own personal gain. The younger generation desires peace and believes in the democratic standards of free speech and human rights. And they are ready to fight for the right to decide their own fate.

The young people of Afghanistan must be given the opportunity to learn, develop and grow. UNICEF estimates that around 3.7 million Afghan children are out of school; 60 percent of them are girls. As a society, we have to do better.

In 2017, a nonprofit organization called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Global invited Digital Citizen Fund, the nonprofit I lead, to put together a robotics team to take part in the FIRST Global Challenge, an international competition for teenagers. This is how the Afghan Dreamers, Afghanistan’s first all-girls robotics team, began. Six students, selected on merit by Digital Citizen Fund out of 150, joined the team.

Even though their visa applications were rejected twice, the Afghan Dreamers eventually traveled to the United States to participate in the FIRST Global Challenge. Tasked with building their own robot for the competition, they captivated the public with their inspiring message of hope and determination. (They eventually received a medal for “courageous achievement.”) They proved that, after years of darkness and subjugation, Afghan girls across the country can finally take charge and aspire to be masters of their own destiny.

This is the power of our youth. Their courage, against a backdrop of personal and national tragedies, has the infectious power to instill hope.

As a reward for the Afghan Dreamers’ efforts advocating women’s participation in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, this year Afghanistan’s government donated a six-acre plot of land at Kabul University to the team. This is where the Afghan Dreamers Institute — based on a design provided by the Yale School of Architecture — will one day be located. The institute will offer STEM education to high school and university students, with an emphasis on artificial intelligence and blockchain technology.

Initiatives like this embody exactly the vision for self-sustaining economic growth that Afghanistan needs. Our children are our country’s future leaders and innovators, and they deserve the full support and investment of their nation.

In May, the Afghan Dreamers were invited to speak at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, an event sponsored by the aerospace industry. After they spoke, someone in the audience asked the five team members in attendance which planet they would like to “put their fingerprints on.”

“Mars!” was their answer.

I hope they succeed. Children must be allowed to dream big dreams.

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