I just returned from a two week trip to Kabul, Afghanistan, where I was working on a project focusing on reaching women as voters, candidates and election officials as the country plans for its next election in 2013. It was a challenging time for Afghanistan, as the attack on the US Embassy occurred right before I arrived in Kabul, followed by the assassination of former President Rabbani.
While I was there, I was privileged to speak to a group of about 40 university students at a small private university. My topic was women and leadership. All of the students spoke English and, given my topic, I was surprised that the group attending was composed of about one-third young men.
As I thought about how to frame my topic and talk — why including women is critical to strong policy decisions being made — I realized that to reach this audience, it was important to talk about inclusive decision making across the board. Yes, including women is fundamental and very important in a country where women’s voices have been marginalized, but it’s also important to ensure that decision making includes everyone. Reaching out to men, and especially these young men who were all wearing jeans and t-shirts, is a key building block. Countries need to take advantage of everyone’s talents and views as decisions get made and make sure that everyone feels part of the process.
I work on women’s leadership and political inclusion for that very reason. But, as I spoke to this group, I realized that for many young men and women in Afghanistan, inclusion was an important message. It’s a country with a large youth population that faces very challenging problems. The young men nodded a lot when I spoke about inclusive decision making; it seemed more appropriate to me than only speaking about gender issues. Clearly, it’s crucial for Afghanistan, but also for the west, because if young people aren’t included in crafting solutions to the problems they face, my guess is they are much more likely to get involved, or be sympathetic, to people who advocate for violence.
The students asked good questions about the United States and they weren’t dogmatic. I’ve done lectures like this in a lot of places around the world where students use the opportunity to criticize United States foreign policy or our emphasis on individual rights.
Not these students.
They were genuinely interested in America, curious about why we don’t have more women in decision making positions, why women in the US still face barriers.
Based on these conversations, and my interactions with other young Afghans in Kabul, I think that they are struggling with how to best be part of rebuilding their country. It’s not an easy task, but this group gave me more than a glimmer of hope that they will find their way.