Sports | Pushing towards social change

How skaters are empowering youth in Afghanistan and Cambodia

In the mainstream conception, skateboarding is thought to be a counter culture, a sport where frustrated youths flock to lash out against society and release some teen angst. Skateboarding is also often associated with partying, drug use, and basically not doing shit. Skateboarding has fallen into this cliché, but anyone who skates knows that there is so much more to it. Skateboarding is like a big family, and due to the painful nature of the sport, only those who truly love it stay in the family. Skateboarders look out for one another, and skateboarding is more of a lifestyle and a mindset than just a sport. This may sound cheesy to those who don’t skate, but I assure you it’s the truth. For example, after the hurricane in Oklahoma, pro skaters and Oklahoma natives Don Nguyen and Clint Walker wanted to do their part. After speaking to their sponsors, they released an Oklahomies board graphic. All proceeds from sales went directly to the American Red Cross.

There have been many examples of skaters going against society’s perceived views of them. One example that stands apart from the crowd is Skateistan, a non-governmental organization (NGO) founded in 2007. It began when two Australians travelling with three other skateboarders ended up in Kabul, Afghanistan. While they were there, the local youth became fascinated with the visitors’ skateboarding, and what started as informal lessons soon grew into an NGO with over 230 volunteers and 13 countries assisting. In 2009, Skateistan, with the help of international funding, opened its first skatepark in Kabul. This park gave 350 youths a safe indoor place to skate, and just like that, a small, unexpected skate scene was born.

Even though education for girls in Afghanistan has modestly improved in the last decade, it is still far from equitable, with only 37 per cent of all enrolled students being female. Fierce resistance by the Taliban also counters this progress. Some incidents have included burning down all-girl schools, killing teachers, and throwing acid on girls who are travelling to school. It is in this environment that Skateistian has emerged as an NGO that fosters small changes within communities.

40 per cent of Skateistan’s members are girls. The skateparks also represent some of the only recreational facilities open to girls in all of Afghanistan. Skateboarding is used to give these girls something to engage in, and from there they can become more empowered. One of Skateistan’s members, 14-year- old Madina Saidy, was selected to speak in front of Afghanistan’s parliament. Madina used to sell a variety of goods on the street to support her family. But through the initiatives put in place by Skateistian, she has emerged as a youth leader. Another example of Skateistan empowering the youth is its role at the national Children’s Shura. This event is a place where youths meet and talk about the issues they face and the best way to combat them. Over 150 children show up representing nine provinces as well as Internally Displaced Persons camps and street working youth. 20 of these 150 participants were also active in the Skateistian program.

The idea is that once these kids get hooked on skating, much more is possible. That is why this NGO uses the momentum built by skateboarding and shifts it into education. One program is called the Back to School Program (BTS), a 12-month program split into three semesters. One grade level is covered each semester. Once the program is completed, participants can re-enroll in government schools. Of the 103 students to complete the program since its inception, half are girls. Of the 38 students in the 2012-13 graduating class, none had attended school before.

Skateistan also offers an art-based educational program. This is centred on giving students a voice to express the issues and concerns that matter to them. All the programs Skateistan offer explicitly promote gender equality within Afghanistan. Even though discrimination is still apparent, Skateistan is taking the first steps to change it, and though girls still are not allowed to ride bikes, there is no restriction against skateboarding, offering young girls previously unavailable childhood experiences.


Though girls still are not allowed to ride bikes, there is no restriction against skateboarding


Skateistan’s efforts with women in Afghanistan have been commendable. But what they have done for the country in the last six years cannot be overlooked. People under the age of 26 make up 70 per cent of Afghanistan’s population. Skateistan is so successful because they use skateboarding as a tool of empowerment. This program brings all of the youth population together, regardless of gender, socioeconomic standing, or ethnicity. By having these connections within the youth groups of Afghanistan, Skateistan is promoting change. Skateistan states that skateboarding provides a space where both tolerance and a trusting civil society can be built. Skateistan works to build trust and understanding between youths that would not usually interact. They use the progress made and continue to build on it both in classrooms and during group activities. Skateboarding is just the starting point. The goal of the program is to empower the youth and build a sense of community to promote the changes they want within their own country.

Recently Skateistan has expanded into Cambodia, bringing their program of youth empowerment through skating and continued education. Though this, they hope to bring the same change that they have achieved in Afghanistan to a country that has been equally touched by conflict.

Although there are still a lot problems in the area, and these programs are just small steps in the right direction, it’s nice to know that these efforts still exist, even if they were born from a counter culture where the opposite is expected.