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03.18.2016

Abdul Kaakar, MIDP '17, Afghanistan

In many remote areas of Afghanistan, the day a girl is born is a day of mourning.

“The mother is often treated as if she has brought shame on the community,” said Abdul Kaakar, a native of Afghanistan and fellow in the Master of International Development Policy (MIDP) program at Duke University. “Girls are considered a burden because they usually end up staying home and not going to school simply due to lack of opportunity and security issues, which makes them dependent on the family for food, clothing and everything else.”

Kaakar, who is a professional photographer and graphic designer, responded by launching a social media campaign that allows Afghan citizens to show their love and appreciation for their daughters. He designed a template where Facebook users can insert a personal photo and post it with a caption.

The idea, Kaakar said, is to promote women’s rights in a way that is fun, engaging and widely accepted.

“I wanted to come up with something that hit on the emotional part of it,” he said. “When you give love to your daughter, who is completely dependent on you, nothing is taken away from your masculinity.”

The campaign, which started only a month ago, now has more than 7,000 likes on Facebook. Celebrities such as Haroon Bacha, a famous Afghan singer, have posted photos with their daughters. In Bacha’s photo, he holds up daughter Hila on her second birthday.

“I’m very happy my daughter is two years old,” the caption reads. “We both hope for a prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan.”

In another post, a prominent religious leader prays while his young daughter plays nearby.  

“When [religious scholars and leaders] start posting their photos, with their long beards, that’s when the message goes out that this has nothing to do with religion,” Kaakar said. “This is human.”

Some of the most powerful messages do not come from celebrities or leaders. One father in a poor rural region of Afghanistan posted a photo of him kissing his little girl. Next to the photo is the comment, “Our village doesn’t have a school, but if we had one, I would send my daughter.”

“That’s a huge message to people who have the opportunity to send their daughters to school, but are not taking advantage of it,” Kaakar said.

Social change through social media

Kaakar launched his service, Ghafar Graphics, in 2008 to offer free design services to a number of social causes in Afghanistan. In addition to women’s rights, he has designed campaigns for blood banks, the country’s armed forces and one of the country's national languages of Pashto.   

Zhwand (Life) Welfare Organization, for example, provides blood donations and other health services to people suffering from rare blood disorders and victims of terrorist attacks. The organization relies on donors and volunteers to help people from remote areas who cannot afford medical treatment.

“We post it on our page, it goes viral, and maybe in an hour 10 to 20 people offer to help,” Kaakar said.

Two years ago, Kaakar was active in a campaign that raised awareness about the dangers of toy guns. During the Eid al-Fitr celebrations, which mark the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, more than 100 Afghan people were injured by rubber pellets fired from toy guns and rifles. Partly thanks to Kaakar’s campaign, the president banned the sale of toy guns in July of last year.

Because of his work on behalf of social movements in Afghanistan, Kaakar has been featured on Voice of America – Pashto on two separate occasions.

Kaakar has recognized the power of social media for some time, but nothing was more convincing than the role platforms like Facebook and Twitter played in the Arab Spring. Nine out of 10 Egyptians and Tunisians used Facebook to organize protests and spread awareness, according to a report by the Dubai School of Government.

“It’s the social media that keeps us connected. We talk, we criticize, we come up with solutions,” he said. “There is censorship on some issues in the formal channels of media like television and newspapers, but social media is free of those constraints and people can more openly discuss heated issues.”

Before joining the MIDP program, Kaakar worked with Equal Access Afghanistan, an international NGO focusing on promoting peace and raising awareness of different social matters through increased media access in underserved areas of Afghanistan. Previously he was secretary to the Director of Administration in the Afghan Ministry of Finance.

Despite Kaakar’s love of the U.S. and Duke University, he said he hopes to return to Afghanistan after graduation to promote youth engagement and the country’s continued social development.

“I know there are a lot of problems, but you can’t just turn your back to them,” he said. “We need to take responsibility for rebuilding the nation.”