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A Conversation with Onaba Payab

Article by The Bush Institute September 22, 2015 //   8 minute read

The Global Women’s Network opened today with a fascinating conversation between Mrs. Laura Bush and Mrs. Michelle Obama, moderated by an impressive young Afghan woman named Onaba Payab.

Onaba, the valedictorian of her 2014 class at the American University of Afghanistan, presented Mrs. Bush with an honorary degree last February and thanked her for her support of Afghan women. Onaba works now to promote education and economic rights for all women in her country and is pursuing a master’s degree in public health.

She shares her thoughts about the progress Afghan women have made, the struggles they still face, and the hope she has for the future of her country in this question-and-answer with the Bush Institute.

Mrs. Bush helped launch the American University of Afghanistan, your alma mater, during her ground-breaking 2005 visit to Afghanistan. It started in a war-torn building with 53 students: 52 men and one woman. Today, there are more than 2,000 students at the University, and its incoming class is 52 percent women. You were the 2014 valedictorian of your class and presented an honorary doctorate to Mrs. Bush in February. How do you believe Mrs. Bush used her platform as First Lady to help champion women and girls in Afghanistan?

American university of Afghanistan (AUAF) and in particular girls’ education at AUAF is one of the main success stories in post-9/11 Afghanistan. Mrs. Bush helped create a center of excellence where girls attain world-class education and are empowered to be the agent of change for other women. The former First Lady has really changed the world for hundreds of women and it multiplies. AUAF female alumni hold higher positions in government and international organizations and the group only expands. Mrs. Bush has helped prove to Afghans and to the larger world that Afghan women are as capable as anyone else anywhere on this planet. The fact that I, an Afghan refugee child a decade ago, am here today thousands of miles away from my home participating in this world summit for women’s empowerment speaks about Mrs. Bush’s extraordinary work for Afghan women.

Over the last 10 years, how have educational opportunities changed for women and girls in Afghanistan?

There are approximately 3 million girls going to school as compared to none before 2002. The literacy rate for girls ages 12-16 has risen to 37 percent. Thirty-six percent of teachers in schools hired across the country are women. In Kabul and in major cities, hundred of thousands of girls go to college as compared to none prior to 2002. The quality of education has not been ideal, but it is increasingly getting better as competition for attracting students in private schools and colleges increases, and the ministry of higher education sets higher standards. Some educational institutions like AUAF are the best in the region. AUAF students are unmatched in the country and they compete very well on regional and even international levels. Education has been a success story for post-9/11 Afghanistan, and we Afghans are very grateful for the generous support the United States of America has been providing to our country. Thank you America indeed!

You know firsthand just how important it is that women have access to education and economic opportunities. Why is this convening important to women in your community as well as around the world?

This convening is important for women in my country because it shows that there are people who care about them. Women’s rights advocates like me get strength in our mission. When we see this, many others around the world are enabled and inspired, and this is a reminder that we are not alone in those tough places. It is a message for violators of women’s rights that they will fail. Summits like this are also an opportunity for women’s rights activists to come together, network and continue to support each other in the future. It helps with sustainability of women’s rights progress in countries like mine.

What role can technology and innovation play in continuing to advance progress for women and girls in your country?

Technology and innovation have completely transformed people’s lives in my country. Technology connects Afghans to the world through instant contacts. We communicate, learn and apply lessons learnt. Afghanistan is now connected to the world through Internet, has more than 20 television channels & many FM radios, and more than five mobile service providers. Mobile phone services reach more than 80 percent of Afghanistan. There are more than 800 hours of TV broadcast as compared to none before 2002, and about 1000 hours radiobroadcast in 24 hours in Afghanistan. Afghanistan ranks number one in the media freedom index in the region well ahead of democracies like India and Turkey. This has revolutionized the progress of women and girls in the country. Women actively participate in education, business and politics, they can easily access educational and informational materials through Internet, share their success stories as well as their problems, and more specifically raise their voice for their rights. The 2014 presidential candidate had to respond to issues women would raise on Facebook and Twitter because they are significant voting banks. When a young woman, Furkhunda, was brutally murdered by crazy mobs for an alleged case of burning Quran, women demonstrated continuously and used media and Internet, and forced the government to take firm action in prosecuting the perpetrators.

As a young leader in Afghanistan, what gives you hope?

Afghanistan is still a fragile country. The gains made in the past decade can be undone. Democracy and human rights are being fought for, while fighting against terrorism continues. Violence against women continues, and a dominating culture of conflict is affecting the whole development process in the country. Yet progress is there. Ten million kids are going to school, 67 percent of the population has access to basic health services, and 12,000 km of roads were constructed. What gives me hope is the young generation. Afghanistan is a very young country. An estimated 65 percent of the Afghan population is 24 years-old or younger.  If there is the right education for these groups, a better future will be guaranteed. Also, over the past decade, a lot of work has happened in promoting and protection women’s rights in Afghanistan. For example, women’s rights are protected through a number of laws introduced. As the rule of law increases, women’s rights will be an essential part of it. In sum, the young generation, if they receive sustained support from the international community, is the hope.