“It is good for young people to know what peace is.” Afghanistan’s Youth Peace Debate

Conflict, Gender, Governance, Humanitarian, Youth

Although almost 50 percent of the Afghan population is under 15, it is rare for young people to be involved in the country’s peace process or to have their voices heard. This changed last month when young people from all over Afghanistan took part in the National Youth Peace Debate, supported by Oxfam’s Within and Without the State project.

For young people in Afghanistan, conflict is part of their everyday lives, from roadside bombs planted by insurgents to community and domestic conflict. Young women in particular often face physical and verbal violence in their homes, communities or places of work, which in many cases results in their exclusion from public life. 

Young Afghans are rarely involved in the peace-building process or consulted on the issues which affect them. Yet, young Afghans are rarely involved in the peace-building process or consulted about these very issues which affect them. This is why it was so exciting to see young people from all over Afghanistan at the National Youth Peace Debate in June 2013. This event, funded by Oxfam’s Within and Without the State (WWS) project, brought over
500 young women and men to Kabul, to meet and question national leaders involved in the peace process and ensure their voices were heard. 

WWS works on peace-building in Afghanistan at national, provincial and community level, particularly to ensure marginalized groups such as women and youth are represented in the peace process. Ensuring these marginalised groups have a platform from which to express their thoughts, concerns and aspirations is one of the key strengths of WWS, in my view. 

Finding common ground

The debate provided just such a platform, enabling young people to be heard by the high peace council and other authorities and to challenge these bodies to be accountable and responsive to their concerns and aspirations.

Plenty of energy at the Afghan National Youth Peace Debate. Credit Joel van Hoedt/Oxfam
The energy was tangible as the young men and women met in small groups before at the debate. They discussed common issues and agreed on questions to put to the panel. 

Despite coming from diverse regions and very different communities, they realised how much they have in common. The opportunity to come together and realize how much they share seems to have given the young people confidence and motivation to continue these discussions at provincial level.

The influential panel included the Chief National Security Council to the President, a Minister of the High Peace Council (HPC), and Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The young people posed a range of challenging questions such as why they were excluded from the peace and reconciliation process and how the law for the Elimination of Violence Against Women was progressing (it’s currently held up by the national assembly). 

I was amazed by the level of confidence that the youth showed in expressing and representing their interests and demands especially given the high level of mistrust that usually exists between government, specifically the HPC, and grassroots movements.

Optimism for the future

Despite the problems that young people experience, a lot of participants expressed optimism for the future. 

Jaheeda Javaisa, organiser of the Daikundi delegation commented: “Fortunately in Afghanistan most of the population is made up of the youth…My father and mother…they are following their old customs and perceptions. But the youth here have the ability to accept new ideas and bring changes. This debate allows young people to gather and share their experiences, problems, and challenges. We can now communicate these issues to those in power – and get them to take action.”  

What Jaheeda says is true: by building synergy between youth and power holders we will ensure that youth play a more substantial role in peace building processes and are able to effectively challenge old ideas.

Achieving peace in Afghanistan, and ensuring the participation of young women and men in the process, will not be easy. But the debate took a few small steps towards this. The panel agreed to involve youth representatives, particularly women, in the Provincial Peace Councils, and offered to raise the role of youth in peace and reconciliation with the Afghan President. The event attracted strong media coverage on TV and in the press -important when holding speakers to account.

The success of the youth debate will now be followed up with a peace hearing to take forward the commitment for the Provincial Peace Councils to involve and collaborate with youth leaders. 

In the words of one of the participants, Nilofar: “It is good for young people to know what peace is and what they can do for their society.”

All photos used on this page: copyright Oxfam/Joel Van Houdt, 2013

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More on Oxfam’s Within and Without the State project.

Author: Babrak Osman
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.