Onaba Payab: From a War-Torn Country to Dialogues with Former First Ladies

Onaba Payab is the first female valedictorian at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. Before she became a Fulbright Scholar, she moderated a discussion between former First Lady Laura Bush and then First Lady Michelle Obama, and was recently part of a delegation of Afghan women at the U.S. Capitol.

My name is Onaba Payab; I am a Fulbright scholar and the first female valedictorian of my class.  I am a success story of Afghanistan, in particular for how education can transform the lives of young women for good.

Growing up in a war-torn country, I never realized that one day my passion would take me to the US to moderate a discussion between former First Lady Laura Bush and then-First Lady Michelle Obama; or that I would be part of a delegation of Afghan women at the US Capitol to promote women’s inclusion in peace-building. I consider education central to the human freedom that liberates the potential of society as a whole.

Born to a well-educated family, I needed what every girl needs: the support of my parents to pursue my dreams. Having my family support behind me, I worked hard to prove to Afghans, and to the larger world, that Afghan women are as capable as any other human anywhere on this planet.

After graduating from high school, I was accepted to the American University of Afghanistan, considered one of the best private universities in the region. I pursued a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Management and graduated as the first female valedictorian of my class in 2014. In a male-dominated education system and society like Afghanistan, I proved that even one girl can change a society and history.

I applied to the Fulbright Program and was awarded a graduate scholarship to study International Policy and Development at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, where I focused on conflict resolution and social justice.  I continued to remain a global voice for gender equality and justice. I am also certified by the University of Vienna in religious studies, human right and international law.

During an interview with Mrs. Laura Bush, I stressed the importance of providing education for young girls living in conflict zones, as well as the importance of visible support from the international community. When we see this, many others around the world are enabled and inspired, and this is a reminder that we are not alone in those tough places. It is a message for violators of women’s rights that they will fail.  We Afghans are very grateful for the generous support that the United States of America has been providing to our country. Thank you America indeed!

It was my education that took me to a world stage, which I can now effectively use to advance the voices of those women and girls who are living on the edge.  I am one of the examples that show how Afghan girls can equally achieve leadership at home and abroad.

I have been invited to speak at international events that try to bring attention to improving the education sector of Afghanistan.  I was invited by the Friends of the American University of Afghanistan and commenced the International Public Service Award in Dallas. I shed light on the importance of education for young Afghans. Young people want a purpose in life…Only if we can ensure that opportunities are available for each and every young woman and man to realize her or his full potential, can we hope to realize the potential of the country as a whole. The willingness of these young Afghans to see a peaceful and stable country will definitely lead to peace and prosperity.

I am grateful for the opportunity of studying in the United States, which has built my confidence.  I   am currently Gender Fellow with the Asia Foundation in Washington D.C. where my research is on Women, Peace and Security in Asia. My passion is empowering the rights of women in Afghanistan through improved access to educational and economic opportunities.

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