Take the community conversation of coffeehouse culture, throw in the passion of youth activism, add in the power of social media and the borderless knowledge of the Internet, and package it up in a social enterprise and what do you get? Internet cafes.
Across the world, Internet cafes are the primary form of Internet access for citizens as a shared, public model is more accessible and affordable than individual access in the home. Internet cafes allow for citizen journalism to flourish, for education to diversify and deepen, and for the global community to connect. Thanks to Internet cafes, I'm able to easily communicate with my Afghan translator, Najibullah, to coordinate upcoming trips, discuss projects, and trouble shoot questions that arise once I'm back in the U.S. Najib, would be unable to afford Internet in his home, and has no office, so instead he visits a cafe every couple of days to check in with clients like me and thus has a flourishing business that has expanded to coordinating between several translators and drivers that now work under him to serve his many international clients. Thanks to Internet access, Najib has built a business that can support his extended family.
Now consider the constraints to the women's rights movement, youth activism, and citizen journalism, when Internet is available but young women don't have access to the same technology, information, and social media conversations that men do. Such is the case for women in Afghanistan where even in urban cities like Kabul, women often don't have access to the same public areas that men do, or if they dare enter, they face harassment and abuse.
Enter the Young Women for Change. Last month, on Women's International Day, young women in Kabul celebrated the opening of the first women's Internet cafe. The first of its kind in Afghanistan, the Sahar Gul cafe allows a safe environment for women to use the internet, to socialize. The cafe was named after a 15-year-old Afghan girl who was tortured by her in-laws when she refused to become a prostitute.
Not a surprising name considering the fight that Young Women for Change, and its co-founders, Noorjahan Akbar and Anita Haidary have taken on. YWC is dedicated to promoting gender equality, empowering women and increasing Afghan women's social participation. Marching in the street to protest sexual harassment, spreading a poster campaign throughout the city, and recruiting young men to advocate for women's rights -- these young women are taking the fight to the streets.
Noorjahan is a powerful activist and voice for young Afghan women. "We are fighting for the next generations of women. If life is a fight, then we fight, no matter what comes."
Besides the obvious fight for women's rights in a country repeatedly ranked as the worst country in the world to be a woman, YWC is also focused on the power of youth voice. "We also promote Afghan unity. We have Uzbeks and Hazaras and Pashtuns and Ismalies in our organization. It is empowering to people because they see that Afghan youth can do something for their country," says Noorjahan.
Taking up the fight alongside these women to bring more voices to the conversation from other areas of the country, Mountain2Mountain is working with YWC to implement two more women's internet cafes in 2012. The first is in Bamiyan, known best in the West for the destruction of its ancient buddha's by the Taliban. Located high in Central Afghanistan's Hindu Kush, Bamiyan hosts a small university, Afghanistan's only female governor, and an active youth radio presence. The cafe will provide not just internet access, but will conduct ongoing social media and citizen journalism workshops as well. The women of YWC will recruit and train the women to run the cafe as a sustainable social enterprise.
The second cafe is proposed in Jalalabad in eastern Nangahar province which is primarily Pashtun and thus more traditionally conservative. Both cafes will be completely solar powered to ensure reliable power off-grid. A necessity in a country where 80 percent of the population does not have electricity.
This project represents the next step of Mountain2Mountain's work in Afghanistan as part of its Voice2Voice program. We will work with the women that have access to the cafes to train them in social media, citizen journalism, and basic photography and video skills for visual storytelling, which will allow Afghan women in three distinctly different regions of Afghanistan to share their stories, report on community and political news, and know that their voices will be heard. Beyond that, these women will be able to access technology, information, and global news thanks to uncensored internet access in a safe environment free from harassment and threats.
If you are interested in learning more, or making a donation to help fund these cafes, please click here.