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After The Mother Of All Bombs, The New Malalas Using Education To Pioneer Peace

The Middle East produces strong women. Against a backdrop, often, of oppression, war and terror, they have learned to survive in some of the world's darkest corners. Malala Yousafzai's bravery and activism is a poignant example of that strength, but she is not alone.

After Trump unleashed the world's largest non nuclear bomb in Afghanistan last week, mentors at the Global Youth Development Initiative, a project dedicated to pairing up Afghan university students with professionals around the world, feared the worst. Had the students survived?

The project, co founded by two students, Gharsanay Amin and Sana Ahmadi, is an act of breathtaking defiance. As a mentor for the scheme, I have listened to stories from students about how they survive living in a country torn apart by violence. Afghanistan continues to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women too, with Amnesty International reporting more than 3,700 cases of violence against women and girls in the first eight months of 2016. As the fighting between extremist groups and government forces intensifies, there's also been a sharp rise in armed groups publicly punishing women through executions and lashings. These groups are also intentionally blocking access to healthcare and education.

A flurry of emails later, and the GYDI mentees are all accounted for. The bomb, which would have left most of us paralysed with fear, has only strengthened the resolve of the students in the region, who see education as a way to pull their country out of war.

Violence is something students in Afghanistan live with on a daily basis. In August 2016, three armed men attacked the American University in Kabul, killing 12 people and injuring nearly 40. Most of the casualties were students and teachers. The university shut down for almost a year after the attack. It reopened again in March. The structural damage caused by the siege was so bad parts of the campus had to be rebuilt. Nargis is a student at the American University and a GYDI mentee. She remembers the attack, one of several she's witnessed as a hostage. Sitting in a dorm room in a new part of the campus considered to be safer, girls are buzzing all around her, offering to help with her headphones as she plugs into Skype. Nargis talks about the attacks at the university as if they are just blips in her day:

"We are used to the violence now. Whenever we hear someone attacking the campus, we just sit at our desks and laugh and chat quietly together. It's our way of blocking out the fear. The international teachers are less used to it. You can see they're very frightened, they just freak out."

Surviving armed conflict at school is not the only worry the girls at the university face. The Taliban's predilection for lashing and executing women who fall foul of their moral standards makes every day dangerous. But it's the undercurrents feeding these practices which are less visible. Nargis describes daily life as a woman going to the American University in Kabul:

"Women get a lot of abuse when they go out, even if they are properly dressed. Add the word "American" to anything here and the aggression doubles. It's as if there's an allergic reaction to anything to do with the West. The campus isn't safe, female students are subjected to more abuse the closer they are to the university, but we won't stop going to school."

Nargis hopes to become a documentary maker and journalist focusing on women's rights in Afghanistan. It's a brave decision. It's also an incredibly risky pastime. Freedom of expression has steadily eroded, with a string of violent attacks, intimidation and killings of journalists in the last year. And it's not just The Taliban claiming responsibility for these actions - government officials' human rights breaches are well documented.

Global Rights estimates that almost 9 out of 10 Afghan women experience physical, sexual or psychological violence, or are forced into marriage. Child Marriage is also common place, with 57% of girls married before they are 19, with most being married at 15 and 16.

Students like Nargis don't allow the realities of living in Afghanistan to deter them from their ideals, things we take for granted like peace, freedom from abuse and access to education. They are part of a fearless generation, who like Malala Yousafzai won't be stopped until they are heard.

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