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Zakia Soleiman is the head of Youth Voices for Positive Change (YVPCO), an Afghan NGO working to ensure that young people's rights and voices are included in political, economic and social affairs.

"It was in 2011 when I had this idea," she explains. "I would hear brilliant ideas from our youth, but whenever I asked them to express their views in public or to the media, everything stopped."

YVPCO now works to provide input to the Government on youth issues and design programmes to promote youth participation and education. Recently, it was involved in the development of Afghanistan's first-ever National Youth Policy, to which young people were invited to give direct input. Zakia and her fellow YVPCO members, as well as represen¬tatives from other youth organizations, were active participants in the Technical Committee which drafted the document. "It was a lengthy process," says Zakia. "There were many debates, starting from who is considered a ‘youth' and whether or not the right to health and education should be enshrined in the policy."

"But it was worth it," she continues, with a sense of accomplishment.

The support of these organizations proved invaluable to the consultation process. "Our organization and other networks helped the Government with carrying out provincial youth consultation workshops, especially in insecure areas where it is much easier for us to reach youth." During the consultation process, more than 500 young women and men in eight provinces commented on the document. "The process was, of course, not perfect but it was the first time that the Government reached out to us to hear our concerns," Zakia says.

Zakia believes that the strength of young people lies in the creativity and innovation they can contribute. "I believe that if young people are provided with meaningful oppor¬tunities for participation, they can be a social force that contributes to the sustainable and equitable development of the country," she says passionately. "I strongly believe that without active youth participation in social, political and economic affairs, growth and development are held back."

This is, she feels, particularly true in Afghanistan. "We are one of the youngest populations in the world. This is an incredible pool of talent and energy, the country needs to listen to our voices and let us help move Afghanistan forward."