25.01.2021

Afghan Youth: Governance and Socio-Political Participation

In a new series of policy briefs, our YLFees discuss current political challenges and recommendations

Young people between the ages of 15 and 25 constitute more than half of Afghanistan's population. While they are often involved in informal politically relevant processes such as activism or civic engagement, they are not formally represented in provincial and national political institutions such as local councils and Parliament. Many of them do not participate in elections. It can impact the quality of democratic governance and challenge the political system's representativeness, leading to young citizens' disenfranchisement.

Further investigations based on young people's opinions and youth-led organizations in Farah, Afghanistan, reveal that they strongly feel they are often excluded from politics and feel unheard. They expressed a need for a supportive environment to develop their political ideas and means of engagement.

Based on most interviewees' opinions, today's youth need real and meaningful opportunities to participate in political processes and contribute to practical solutions that advance development. When given a chance to organize, voice their opinions, and play a meaningful role in political decision making, young people consistently demonstrate their willingness and ability to foster positive, lasting change. They also become more likely to demand and defend democracy and gain a greater sense of belonging.

Despite making up more than half of the population in many countries, young people (ages 15-20) often find themselves marginalized from mainstream politics and decision making. They struggle to respect public officials and lack the skills and experience to engage in political activity and lead to positive change in their communities. This exclusion, combined with limited educational and economic opportunities, can leave young people idle and frustrated with the status quo.

People under the age of 25 in Afghanistan are rarely found in formal political leadership positions. In Afghanistan and a third of world countries, the national Parliament's eligibility starts at 25 years or higher. It is common practice to refer to politicians as 'young' if they are below 35-40 years of age.  Youth is not represented adequately in formal political institutions and processes such as parliaments, political parties, elections, and public administrations. The situation is even more difficult for women in mid-level and decision-making/leadership positions.

One of the obstacles in targeting youth is finding a standard definition for them. The United Nations (UN) defines them as people between the ages of 15 and 24.  The WHO, meanwhile, distinguishes between specifically defined adolescent development stages. Teenagers aged 14-17, for instance, start to experiment with sex, drugs, friends, risks, develop strong peer relationships, form more stable relationships, and gain social and problem-solving skills. Adolescents of ages 16-19 can plan and follow long term goals for the future, understand how choices and decisions affect the future, understand right from wrong (morally and ethically), and move from a child-parent/guardian relationship to an equal adult-adult relationship.

In terms of their engagement in the political arena, the focus on youth is a relatively new priority for most democratic states but extremely timely, particularly in light of recent events, democratic transitions, and conflict resolution in Afghanistan. Participation is one of the guiding principles of the universal declaration of human rights and young people's right to participation has been deemed necessary in numerous international agreements. For instance in 1994, 179 countries – including Afghanistan- recognized the importance of ensuring young people's "integration and participation in all spheres of society, including participation in the political processes and preparation for leadership roles."

Current Youth Engagement and Challenges

The Internet has become an essential tool from which teenagers in Afghanistan collect political information and is a channel they now use to organize and mobilize. The numbers of social media users in Afghanistan also show that a youth's socio-political interest was higher than an adult's. [1] For this research, 30 youths aged 14-18 of diverse backgrounds in Farah, Afghanistan, were consulted to contribute their experiences. Mohammad Reza – aged 14 at the time of the study – said, "The younger you are, the less respect you get for your opinions and engagement." Likewise, Mahmoud – also aged 14 – said that the adults in his family tell him to "stay out of it [politics] until you can vote."

With experiences like these, young people are often excluded from politics and feel unheard. They expressed a need for a supportive environment to develop their political ideas and to be heard. Abdul Karim, who is 17 years old, said, "it feels good being able to express my political beliefs out, but to feel heard, I would need supporters and people who understand my views."

Based on most interviewees' opinions, today's youth need real opportunities to participate in political processes and contribute to practical solutions that advance development. When given a chance to organize, they voice their opinions and play a meaningful role in political decision making. Young people consistently demonstrate their willingness and ability to foster positive, lasting change. They also become more likely to demand and defend democracy and gain a greater sense of belonging.

In a survey conducted by the UN LANYD in August 2012, most of the 13,000 respondents from 186 countries, including Afghanistan, claimed that youth's main challenges were limited opportunities for effective participation in decision-making processes. Young men and women feel excluded and marginalized in their societies and communities.

Both formal and informal engagement can be understood as political participation, and both are beneficial for a resilient democracy.[2] There is strong evidence that young people's participation in the formal political process is relatively low compared to older citizens in Afghanistan. These challenges of the political system representatives lead to the disenfranchisement of young people.

There is no specific strategy for increasing youth participation in Afghanistan, even if it is an essential component of the Afghanistan National Youth Strategy, approved by Parliament in 2015.

The current levels of knowledgeable engagement by Afghanistan's youth remain too low. Opportunities for civil learning and engagement are highly unequal for rural and urban youths. Civil education is increasingly viewed as controversial by the public,[3] even though the interviewees for this research claim it works.[4] Discussing controversial issues, being contacted by parties and campaigns, and participating in extra-curricular activities all predict good civic outcomes for students. [5]

Conclusion

With increasing economic, political, and environmental insecurity, young people are a further impetus to participate actively in decisions that affect their lives. If citizenship is a lifelong right and responsibility, teenagers' participation and influence are necessary for all social sectors.

Therefore, to break current patterns, there are many meaningful ways to provide youths (15-to-18-year-olds) opportunities to influence government decisions. Policymakers must embrace innovative and collaborative approaches to civic education by including public consultations and inquiries, youth parliamentary representatives, councils, voting, and teaching critical thinking and media literacy.  

Recommendations:

  • Establishment of district youth councils and linking them to the provincial councils and Parliament at the provincial and national level;
  • Lowering the voting age to 15 for district and Provincial Councils' elections;
  • Facilitate the connection between youth and political and community leaders;
  • Teaching students media literacy and critical thinking, reading and debate news in class, and encouraging them to discuss issues with their parents and other adults who are important in their lives.

 

[1] Dadullah Qani, Member of Farah Provincial Council, Interview by the author, October 10, 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Farah youth, Interview by the author, October 10, 2020

[4] Members Farah Provincial Council, Interview by the author, October 2020.

[5] Ali Ahmad, Principal of Shaid M. Nader Aubi High School, Interview by the author, October 10 2020.

Abdul Jamil Zahin is a member of the 2020/21 Young Leaders Forum.

This article has also been published in Dari by Afghanistan Today. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

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