In a year of many benchmarks for Afghanistan, May 25th marks a major achievement for one of the greatest civil society success stories in the country. On a sunny Saturday, only one day after a major insurgent attack in the capital city, the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) completed the inaugural ceremony to open the International Center for Afghan Women’s Economic Development (ICAWED) in Kabul.
AUAF is modeled on the renowned universities in Beirut and Cairo, and is Afghanistan’s only private, non-profit, non-partisan, and co-ed higher educational establishment. Since opening 2006 with an inaugural class of 53 students, the University has multiplied its enrollment year over year. AUAF graduated its first class in 2011, and today enrolls more than 1,300 full and part-time students. These students range from recent high school graduates who come to Kabul from across the country, to local government employees who are taking advantage of the university’s adult education programs.
In the 7 years since its opening, AUAF’s needs have exceeded its original five-acre campus. Last year saw the university’s acquisition of an additional 80 acres of land nearly adjoining the original facilities. The expanded campus lays at the foot of the hill on which the remains of the well-known Darul Aman Palace are perched. Although the ICAWED facility was completed after a lightning-pace 14 months of construction, its activities have been long in the making.
Funded through a $5 million grant out of the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s unique Task Force for Business Stability Operations, the center’s mission is to promote, coordinate, and connect the numerous public and private sector entities engaged in the empowerment of Afghan women. One of the center’s first activities will be an international conference to take place in June, dedicated to helping develop a national agenda for women’s economic development. Women in leadership positions from six countries are scheduled to travel to Kabul to participate in the conference.
The ICAWED building is a 5,500 square foot state of the art facility that will be the heart of the expanded campus. It includes a 200-seat auditorium, twelve classrooms, two computer labs, a business incubator, a library, eleven offices, a radio station, the Louis Berger Afghan Cultural Center, prayer rooms, and a women’s fitness center.
Like many projects funded by international donors in Afghanistan, there is the potential for criticism about what this investment will actually provide for the recipients in the years to come. ICAWED Executive Director Nilofar Sakhi addressed these concerns head on when she remarked, “There’s always an uncertainty about issues like funding and whether [financial support] will be staying or leaving after 2014. The permanence of our state-of-the-art center stands in marked contrast. No other facility exists like this in the entire country. We want to send a clear message–we’re not going anywhere.”
Since graduating its first class of students 2 years ago, AUAF has produced eleven Fulbright Scholars and maintains partnerships with some of the world’s most prestigious universities, including Stanford University, Georgetown University, and the University of California network. When Ambassador Ryan Crocker spoke in March at the Friends of AUAF gala in Washington, DC in March he observed, “You need a few good women and men to provide leadership, and that is what this university is doing.”
In a country with no shortage of challenges to surmount in the coming years, producing a strong foundation of educated young professionals will be fundamental to developing a strong civil society in Afghanistan in the years ahead.
Whitney Grespin has worked in contingency contracting and international development on four continents. She currently specializes in security sector reform and capacity building.
Photo: Spc. Kristina Truluck, United States Army.