standard Uncovering resilience in the lives of young people in Afghanistan

The ‘man-made hazard’ of war is universal in many developing countries, but it is one of many social and physical hazards they experience firsthand.  This article from IHRR’s archives looks specifically at research on resilience in young people in Afghanistan from two researchers: Catherine Panter-Brick and Mark Eggerman, whose work was based at Durham University.  They found that young people’s traumatic experiences in Afghanistan are not confined to war, but ‘range from armed insurgency to severe family level conflict’. Traumatic experiences caused by ‘everyday violence’ in Afghanistan lead to psychiatric disorders along with symptoms of post-traumatic stress.  Today, one in five school children in Afghanistan is likely to suffer from clinical mental health problems. Everyday violence In Afghanistan, young people are trapped within a landscape of violence that is not limited to war.  According to Eggerman, the kinds of violence young Afghans are exposed to include everything from ‘falling off a roof while flying a kite to witnessing a suicide bomb attack at a bus stop in Kabul’.  ‘There’s a spectrum of violence -– it’s not all about the war -– and it isn’t uniform’, he said.  The popular media’s of Afghanistan would have you believe that the entire country is a war zone.  But young people’s exposure to war-related violence depends on what part of Afghanistan they live in and 80% of young people interviewed by Panter-Brick and Eggerman had not left the country.  Older children had memories of devastating violence such as rockets falling during the Mujahideen civil war in the mid-1990s.  In Bamyan, they witnessed villages burn down and people severely beaten or shot by the Taliban. But there were many other young people who had little exposure to political violence, although they had witnessed other acts of violence in their neighbourhood such as stabbings or severe public beatings.  They, along with other youth in Afghanistan, are focused on how to ‘make ends meet’ and live up to their family’s hopes and expectations.  Despite living in a country torn by war and other forms of violence, many young Afghans are just striving for socioeconomic survival. Within the unstable political, economic and social contexts of Afghanistan, young people are simply trying to serve their families and better themselves, for example, through education.  ‘These kids are very strong and have remarkable ambitions. A lot of this strength is based on keeping the family together, working and maintaining cultural values’, said Eggerman Cultural values Cultural values form the ‘bedrock of resilience’ for people in Afghanistan.  In their research, Panter-Brick and Eggerman identified a range of core cultural values that define resilience in the lives of Afghan families.  Some of these values have complex interpretation, but largely underpin resilience in the face of overwhelming physical, social and economic adversity.  Religion for example, expressed as ‘being a good Muslim’, is essential to the lives of Afghans.  Having a strong iman (religious conviction), accepting that life is determined by God, means that people believe they will reap benefits through their insurmountable faith. Afghan respondents interviewed in this research said that if they had not achieved what they so strongly desired, such as owning their own home, this was ‘God’s will’.  If they demonstrated iman in the face of adversity, they would improve their lives.  For Afghans living within an ocean of uncertainty, iman is a way of moving out of a position of powerlessness, allowing them to become more resilient to the tragedies they face: ‘iman allows Afghans to have psychological resilience and maintain balance in their lives’, said Eggerman. Other highly important cultural values central to the lives of Afghans have to do with family.  Family unity and harmony are described as wahdat and ittifaq; they are essential to maintaining peaceful households.  Panter-Brick and Eggerman found that families governed employment opportunities and effective decision-making regarding wealth, property and arranged marriages.  Those without wahdat and ittifaq, who lost family unity and harmony, seriously suffered both in terms of material and psychosocial well being. In recognition of the need to ‘serve’ their families, young people had forceful ambitions to achieve success at school, or great determination in work such as carpet weaving before and after school.  They showed outstanding perseverance and effort, known as kosesh, as hard work was viewed as fundamental to improving their lives.  In essence, resilience was ‘life feeds on hope’.  Yet despite the protective efforts of such cultural values, young people were also oppressed by cultural dictates governing their choices and life trajectory.  This ‘entrapment’ of cultural values was one that, on the one hand, fostered resilience to everyday adversity, and on the other, fell short of material and social expectations. An ‘anchor of resilience and an anvil of pain During extensive interviews, Afghan respondents also described unfavourable consequences for how people live their lives according to their cultural values.  In their study, Panter-Brick and Eggerman referred to culture as an ‘anchor of resilience and an anvil of pain’.  Culture may be essential to forming one’s social identity, sense of order and hope for the future, but if people find themselves unable to conform to the strict cultural values of ‘what makes an honourable Afghan’ they suffer great psychosocial distress.  Adherence to Afghan cultural values could thus bring about intense hardships: ‘Failure or frustration in attaining social and cultural milestones lies at the root of social suffering and mental ill-health, as articulated in local idioms of stress, anxiety, and depression, or conflicts that are debilitating and life threatening’.  The notion of ‘social suffering’ is crucial for understanding the complexities of living in a world where cultural values are necessary for survival, yet also can lead to other forms of oppression or suffering. Social suffering is a broad conceptual term first coined by Prof Arthur Kleinman, a psychiatrist and medical anthropologist at Harvard University.  Understanding suffering on a social scale includes the consideration of structural factors that impact people’s sense of well being and material lives.  ‘Social suffering results from social rather than emotional problems – the consequence of political, economic and institutional power that puts people in harm’s way.  ‘It is suffering linked to the human consequences of war, famine, disease and social injustice’, said Panter-Brick.  In not fulfilling their cultural obligations, such as arranging a good marriage or securing a good job to achieve social and material status, young Afghan men and women become entrapped within a series of cultural standards that they are not always able to live up to.  Afghan youth must strive to bring themselves out of poverty, to work hard and obtain a good education, but simultaneously they must service their family.  They become entrapped within the system of cultural values that define their lives while struggling to cope with political violence and structural violence engendered by social ‘stressors’ of everyday life in Afghanistan.  It is within this context that violence and poverty must be understood within Afghanistan in order to inform policy and foster resilience. Cultivating resilience In Afghanistan, it is not war that is seen as the root of suffering, but the ‘broken economy’ (iqtisad kharab ).  Many conflicts and forms of violence arise from this situation alone.  The forms of violence experienced by young people in Afghanistan, who make up half of the country’s population, are not limited to war.  If they are to become more resilient to the challenges they face, Eggerman and Panter-brick argue that a better understanding of violence ‘beyond a record of war-related tragedies or day-to-day social injustices’ needs to be achieved.  ‘I’d like to see our research have an impact on Afghan society, and on the people who make decisions in the country, decisions that influence the lives of the next generation’, said Eggerman.  In order to achieve their material goals whether dictated by culture or their own personal aspirations, resilience is imperative to overcoming the most terrible hardships experienced by young people in Afghanistan.  Forms of ‘everyday violence’ should be accounted for when addressing mental health issues in Afghani children.  It needs to be acknowledged that the problems young people face in Afghanistan cannot be limited solely to war, poverty or cultural values, rather, these layers of experience shape how they endure countless tragedies.  How young people in Afghanistan will cultivate resilience in the future could be greatly assisted by informed policy and listening to their experience instead of focusing on the spectacle of war.


Suffering, hope, and entrapment: resilience and cultural values in Afghanistan‘. Social Science & Medicine Violence, suff ering, and mental health in Afghanistan: a school-based survey (freely available online). The Lancet Conflict, violence, and health: Setting a new interdisciplinary agendaSocial Science & Medicine Brief interview with Catherine Panter-Brick about aspects of the research:

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