Afghan Youth Debates: Concerns About Youth Awareness of Polls

Students and villagers in the Kandahar province of southern Afghanistan have questioned whether the authorities have spent enough on raising awareness of the April presidential and provincial elections.

Audience members at an IWPR-backed debate held at Kandahar University Hall on February 5 repeatedly asked the panellists whether enough had been done to ensure a high turnout, particularly among the many rural young people who are illiterate.

The CIA estimates that 68 per cent of Afghanistan’s population of 28 million are under the age of 25. Official figures show that 77 per cent of people live in rural areas, making it even more essential to ensure that people in remote areas are able to vote.

Abdul Majid Hajizoi, an economics lecturer at Kandahar University, urged younger voters to exercise their right to take part in the historic April 5 ballot. These people are the "backbone" of Afghan society, he said, and engaging them was of paramount importance to moving Afghanistan forward.

"Any eligible young person can cast a vote or stand as a candidate," Hajizoi said. "This is an established right, and the younger generation should fight to use their votes to help better themselves and the country.

"We have to let them know that the process is trustworthy. Public awareness is very important for these people. If education is not available to young people, the imams [mosque leaders] and village heads should help inform the younger generation."

Abdul Aziz Akrami, public affairs officer for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), also pressed home the importance of a high youth turnout, and the effort needed to engage young people.

Akrami acknowledged the difficulties caused by illiteracy and urged those fortunate enough to have received an education to play a part in propagating the message that taking part in the elections was essential to Afghanistan's future.

"Unfortunately, our younger generation struggles with illiteracy in the villages, so they aren’t able to study the policies and programmes of presidential and provincial candidates," he said. "That can leave them unclear about what's right for the national interest. It is therefore up to students and civil society organisations, together with the Independent Election Commission, to help make the public more aware of the importance of the coming election."

With an audience of about 100 people, the panellists included Nesar Ahmad Aria, head of the youth affairs department for Kandahar province, and Taj Mohammad Sahel, head of the Youth Volunteers Federation in the region.

One audience member asked Aria how he expected illiterate young people to vote when village heads might ban them from doing so, or exploit their lack of education to get them to vote for a particular candidate.

Aria replied that the problem could only be solved by running more public awareness programmes at village, district and provincial levels. He highlighted local council initiatives designed to encourage elders to allow people to vote, and argued that few Afghans actually opposed the election.

"We have district council programmes in many areas, attended by imams and village heads," he said. "We are delivering public awareness through them."

Sahel disputed the idea that most Afghans welcomed the election.

"There are some young people who are reluctant to take part, because many promises to improve living conditions were made in the past, yet little has changed. That’s why there isn’t much interest among young people."

Sayed Taj Mohammad is a student at Kandahar University and an IWPR trainee.

This report was produced as part of Open Minds: Speaking Up, Reaching Out – Promoting University and Youth Participation in Afghan Elections, an IWPR initiative funded by the US embassy in Kabul.