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Youth engagement

May 04, 2018


THERE are plenty of issues that need to be mulled over in detail by policymakers and thinkers, regarding the youth, their development and their future. A number of these are discussed at some length in the UNDP’s Pakistan National Human Development Report on youth, launched on May 2, which I co-authored with Dr Adil Najam. Here I want to focus on a few issues that relate to creating pathways through which the youth can become an integral part of the dialogue and decision-making process in the country.

Between one-half and two-thirds of the youth we interacted with, through our survey and focus group discussions, said that they would like to have another chance at enhancing or completing their educational qualifications. Many could not go to school because their families could not send them, for one reason or another. Many had to drop out, again for a variety of reasons, before they could reach high school. Some even regretted not completing their undergraduate degrees. All of them wanted another opportunity.

If our survey and youth discussions are representative of the larger youth population in Pakistan, which, technically, we believe, they are, there must be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of youth, who feel they would like to have another go at getting more education.

But we do not have programmes that facilitate such aspirations. Our schools and colleges are not geared for offering educational services for those who might have been out of the education system for a number of years, and this is a problem across all levels of education. Most of our colleges and universities do not offer continuing education programmes. Our schools do not cater for children who might have dropped out a few years ago.

Should we not think of redesigning some of our institutions to create spaces for our young generations?

I remember discussions on the board of studies of two institutions of higher learning where I was a member. I had asked why these institutions had placed age limits for admission for even their graduate programmes. What did they have against an older person coming back and getting a Master’s degree? Though there was no coherent reason given, neither institution wanted to remove the age bar completely.

There might be no formal age restrictions for enrolments in school or college programmes, but that is not the main issue. Even if we allow flexibility for age, unless we develop special programmes for people who have dropped out, they will not be able to make a comeback.

We might require programmes to be more flexible in terms of timing and offer evening or weekend classes; we might have to offer compressed programmes that can be completed faster than the normal track; we might have to structure assignments and assessments differently; and we might have to give credit for work experience in pertinent cases. All of these and more might need to be done to create the right opportunities for young people to have a fair crack at re-entering the education field.

The other issue I want to highlight is that the youth feel, and rightly so, that they are not allowed to participate in major debates, discussions and decisions even in their lives far less in community-level decisions. We feel that youth can be married and have children of their own quite early but we do not allow them to become members of parliament till they turn 25 and members of the Senate till 30, and we do not allow them to be eligible to become president till they are 40. The issue is not these particular offices. The issue is the overall structure of governance that we have created and the spaces for youth to get involved in debate and decision-making.

The report gives details on what sort of activities the youth are exposed to or involved in. These numbers are based on the UNDP’s Youth Perception Survey 2015. Some of these make for sad reading. Less than 10 per cent of women feel they have control over who they marry and when. Almost 80pc of youth do not have access to parks, 95pc or so do not have access to libraries, 97pc have not been to a live music event, 94pc have not been to a sports event, 93pc do not have access to sports facilities, 97pc have not been to a cinema and over 70pc reported that they did not have any of the above.

How do we engage the youth? What would be the right channels through which we engage them? Should we not spend a lot more time creating public spaces in which the youth not only engage in healthy activities (sports, discussions and debates) but also experience peer interaction, living with one another, thinking about each others’ perspectives and debating these?

The findings also showed that almost half the youth surveyed did not feel it was okay to have friendly relations with people from other religions. Many more felt that people of other religions should not be allowed to establish places of worship (a right guaranteed to them in our Constitution) and should not be allowed to preach their religion.

Should we not think of redesigning some of our institutions and governance structures to create spaces for youth to be involved? For example, student politics has a bad name, but we need to have a rethink on this. Clearly, it cannot be about violence and suppression, but the youth have to be positively engaged in the political debates of the country.

The youth need to be heard. They need to be engaged. They need to be ready to lead. Suppressing youth voices and not giving them space, as we have been seeing recently in a number of contexts (journalism, social movements, academia), will lead us further down a blind alley.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2018