|Lack of education among Afghan youth - particularly children - gives them no alternatives in a society where taking advantage of them is rife [GALLO/GETTY]
Earlier this year, Afghan president Hamid Karzai signed an agreement with the United Nations to curb the recruitment of underage children in the Afghan police force. The agreement comes after the UN placed Afghanistan's National Police on a blacklist of organisations that recruit children. Also included in the agreement is a ban on a 3,000-year-old Central Asian paedophiliac practise known as bacha bazi - the practise highlighted in Khaled Hosseini's controversial novel The Kite Runner - using pre-pubescent boys to "entertain" local elders through dance, and at times, sexual acts.
The Karzai administration lauds the agreement as an example of its commitment to the millions of Afghan children. But youth advocates in the country argue that the problems facing many Afghan youth go far beyond the belated actions of the government.
"The government is doing nothing of its own," says research analyst at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in Kabul, Abdulhadi Hairan. "It has only been doing things that it has been told by the international community," he says.
Hairan is one of many international aid workers, young Afghans, journalists, and policy makers, who in a series of interviews, paint a much more grim picture of government actions that over the last 10 years have fallen short of addressing the central issues - poverty, access to education, lack of opportunity, and exploitation - that face 68 per cent of the Afghan population.
Third time's the charm?
Fatima Popal is a Georgetown University graduate student and a restaurateur. In recent years, she has made several trips to Afghanistan and volunteered as a girls' basketball coach in orphanages in the capital, Kabul. Her experiences depict a nation where, despite 10 years of international presence and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, the largest segment of the population - the youth - still lack such basic necessities such as food, water and housing.
Popal says the orphanages she worked in had no housing facilities; the street children - who according to the UN estimates make up between 60,000 to 70,000 of the four million people in Kabul - used the facilities during the day and returned to the streets at night.
She recalls that the orphanages could not provide nutritious meals for the children, noting "bread vendors around the area would give day-old bread to the orphanages," who would then serve it with tea for lunch. Even in a nation where, according to UNICEF, half of all children under 5 suffer from malnutrition, Popal points out that these meagre meals were "not really nutritious".
"We were coaching basketball on gravel and the basketball hoops were not hoops; it was almost as if they were coat hangers made into hoops," says Popal, noting that the girls did not even have sneakers to play in.
Yousef Mohamed, founder of the Aschiana Foundation, which has operated a number of youth education and vocational centres in Afghanistan since 1995, says organisations like his are struggling due to a lack of funds. Mohamed believes the financial problem is exacerbated by the government's over-reliance on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to address the fundamental problems plaguing young Afghans.
Mohamed contrasts this surge of NGOs with the Taliban era when, "we had a lot of activity for women and children because no one wanted to put themselves in danger" by doing such work. Mohamed attributes this fact with having made it "easier then to do the work" of the Aschiana Foundation.
Today, Mohamed says there are more NGOs, thus "it's not easy to find a budget for real programmes for the best interest of the children, with more people looking for visibility and thinking very short-term - that if we build this building, then we are done."
Mohamed says his organisation's centres receive greater support from the community than from the government. Speaking of the community's role in the success of the Aschiana Foundation, which has mentored more than 50,000 children and young adults since 1998, Mohamed says, "They see the impact of the programme with their eyes. They see how much it changes the life of the children and needy people."
I haven't seen anything
For 23 year-old Bates College student Mustafa Basij-Rasikh, who spent his entire life in Kabul before coming to the United States in 2006, Mohamed's statements about the lack of government presence in the community rings true.
Basij-Rasikh says even in the capital, "You don't really see the presence of the Ministry of Youth at the community level." The Ministry of Youth has been so reduced in its role that "the people would not know that this person works for the youth," adds Basij-Rasikh.
The oft-repeated statements by the government and the international community on how many girls have returned to school do not impress organisations like Human Rights Watch, who find the figure of three million school-aged girls currently attending school much less encouraging.
Advocacy Director for the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, Jo Becker, also says there has been some progress in terms of access to education for Afghan youth, yet "it hasn't been as good as often portrayed in the media". According to Oxfam, though the six million school-aged children currently enrolled represent a five-fold increase from 2001, that number represents only half of the total school-aged children in the nation.
In response to what the Karzai government is doing to empower the girls, Popal said they often felt they couldn't endure the physical stresses of athletics because they hadn't eaten anything. This is a startling fact from a nation that was historically food self-sufficient.
"I haven't seen anything. I haven't seen any kind of funding that goes into programmes that helps girls in sports," Popal says pointing to the empowering role of non-profit organisations, like Skateistan, that have taken the place of the government.
For Popal, the lack of progress made in empowering girls and women in Afghanistan is embodied in a recent USAID decision to re-direct funding of women's initiatives in Afghanistan. In a Washington Post interview, Alexander Thier, director of USAID's office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, said, "If you're targeting an issue, you need to target it in a way you can achieve those objectives." Referring to this interview, Popal says the re-direction of funds is simply "because they're not effective, in most of these programs the money is going to projects that cannot manoeuvre or sustain over time."
Ahmad Shuja, a 23 year-old Berea College student and blogger, spent six years in war-torn Afghanistan before becoming one of the 1.78 million Afghan refugees in neighbouring Pakistan, where he lived for 13 years until he came to the United States to study political science and economics.
As one of the 68 per cent of Afghans under 25, Shuja says his story is indicative of the lengths youth in Afghanistan will go to in search of opportunity. "There are very few opportunities for the large youth bulge," says Shuja. Using many of his own friends as examples, Shuja says "it speaks volumes about what the government has done to create opportunities within Afghanistan when a teenager risks his life by travelling from Iran to Turkey, boating his way to Greece, smuggling himself into Italy and, ultimately, to France or one of the Nordic countries," in search of opportunity.
You're Afghan, you're young, you have this potential
To Shuja, his entire generation of Afghan youth who "were simply too young to have fought in the civil wars", are one of the nation's greatest untapped assets. Many of the youth who make up the majority of Afghanistan's population were "uninvolved in the atrocities and killings" that followed the Soviet ouster in 1989. This generational gap from the warlords and political establishment means these young Afghans "can legitimately spearhead a national healing and reconciliation process," says Shuja.
Seeing this potential for youth-led change in Afghanistan, Basij-Rasikh, and 21 year-old Williams College student, Matiullah Amin started the Afghan Youth Initiative in May 2010, a youth empowerment based project.
"It's time to realise the promise of the next generation because it's 68 per cent of the population and we want this generation to be strong and run its own country without anyone else's help," Amin says.
Basij-Rasikh says what the millions of Afghans under the age of 25 need is someone to tell them "you're Afghan, you're young, you have this potential. Now get up and do something" for your country.
For Basij-Rasikh and Amin, the disempowerment of the youth of Afghanistan is a product of the on-going conflict. Amin says often times "the youth are put in the corner because the older generation says 'you are young, you don't have enough experience. Let us solve the communal problems'." Given this fact, Basij-Rasikh says it is especially important that as two young Afghans who grew up in conflict themselves, that they be the ones to tell other young people of Afghanistan "that people can bring change on a very small scale" regardless of their position in society or their place in the political structure.
This direct engagement of the youth has lead the Afghan Youth Initiative to address the very practical problem of hygiene, by partnering with the youth of the Western province of Farah to place 35 trash receptacles in the provincial capital, Farah City.
Though these young Afghans may have been too young to remember Afghanistan's moves towards democracy in the 1960s and 70s before the Soviet occupation, they are well aware of the current political situation in their nation.
"They have to be - the daily grind of politics affects the people more directly in less developed countries than it does in developed countries," says Shuja. He uses the bribery that has become a "common practise in all levels of government bureaucracy" as an example of the political problems facing the Afghan youth. To Shuja, unlike Western youth where "for example, government services are interrupted only when there is a labour strike," being apolitical is not an option in a nation where the youth are the majority but are routinely silenced by a political environment that makes it "very difficult for the youth to become engaged in politics in any systematic way," says Shuja. Amin says much of this interest in politics can also be attributed to the expanding media environment in the nation.
Basij-Rasikh says he was heartened to see a clear sign of increasing youth political engagement when he was in Kabul during the 2010 Parliamentary elections. "I was very shocked not to see the old faces with the long beards," says Basij-Rasikh recalling the many images of people closer to his own age running for parliament, which Amin points out was in stark contrast to "the 2005 Afghan Parliament full of the older generation".
Class, power and advancement
The bacha bazi provisions in the January agreement highlight another important issue affecting young Afghans - exploitation. "Bacha bazi, in many instances, is ingrained in the local power structures," says Shuja. Though the practise dates back centuries and spans several Central Asian nations, Shuja says, bacha bazi, like all things in Afghanistan over the last three decades, has to do with access to opportunities and advancement.
For Shuja, the exploitative practise is as much about class and power as it is tradition.
"A poor farmer struggling to feed his family won't indulge in such practises; it is the wealthy and the powerful that do," says Shuja.
Though they feel "the class structure dismantled over the course of the last 30 years", Basij-Rasikh and Amin do see the lack of opportunities as a possible factor in the practise.
In a society "where you have young children not going to school and then you have the older 20-plus just sitting around," the youth are more susceptible to fall victim to predatory practises like bacha bazi and child recruitment on either side of the nation's on-going conflict, says Amin.
Despite the many challenges facing Afghan youth today, Popal, who has lived in Europe and the United States since her family fled the Russian occupation, says the youth of Afghanistan embody an enthusiasm for life she has not seen even in Western children who have everything.
These children "have absolutely nothing, but they're some of the happiest children because they are alive and breathing," says Popal of the smiles that she credits with constantly pulling her back to Afghanistan.
"Giving them a hand puts a big smile on their face," Popal says, recalling her experience with a street kid who became her helper in her time as a basketball coach.
"No one liked him around because he was dirty and always wore the same clothes," but Popal employed him "as my little helper" and paid him a dollar a day for chasing basketballs around. It was on her final day with that 8 year-old little boy that Popal realised the importance of showing these Afghan youth even a little attention. "I gave him a hundred dollar bill and he came back to me and said 'I didn't help you for money, I helped you because you were kind to me'," as he returned her hundred dollars to her.
The story of Popal's "little helper" is proof of a 2007 statement by United Nations Afghanistan spokesman Aleem Siddique that the problems facing the Afghan youth is not "solely related to money" and that the youth need "more than just aid money". This, despite the fact that USAID spent $342 million in Afghan education projects in the period between 2002 and 2007.
When the boy returned her 100 dollars to her, Popal says she was shocked because "this is a little street kid that need[ed] a hundred bucks right now". Yet, reminded that "all these little kids were running around with such enthusiasm", she and her colleagues decided to take a proactive approach to the one of the most troubling and utilitarian issues they faced on a daily basis: "We took our money and bought them 150 pairs of shoes."