Unlocking the potential of Pakistan's disengaged youth

by Meera Patel | ashoka | Ashoka UK
Thursday, 19 February 2015 14:08 GMT

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“I was forced to marry my cousin against my will… On the day of my marriage I was feeling lifeless … My husband suspected my reluctance as a sign of my relationship with another man. He called me a whore and tortured me mentally and physically.”

This story, recounted by an anonymous 24 year old woman in a recent British Council report, illustrates the burgeoning sense of crisis amongst Pakistan’s youth, who are increasingly both the victims and perpetrators of criminal, sexual and physical violence. In 2013, the Next Generation project recorded the stories of 1800 young people, providing a terrifying insight into the experiences of youth in Pakistan.  

Young adults (15-29 years old) constitute 30% of Pakistan’s population, an imbalance that is projected to continueover the next three decades. In a country where 58 million people live below the poverty line, a swiftly expanding young population poses further problems in the employment market, health infrastructure and education system. Socio-economic deprivation has also been linked to an increase in acts of violence. 42% of young people who admitted committing violent acts in the Next Generation Report, claimed poverty as their motivation. A further 24% and 12% respectively, claimed that they wanted money or were unemployed. The dispossession of Pakistan’s youth clearly has violent consequences. 

Ali Raza Khan, founder of Youth Engagement Services Pakistan (YES Network) and Ashoka Fellow, is exhausted by the narrative of failure that shapes the national representation of young people. He launched YES Network Pakistan in order “to challenge the traditional thinking and practices of working with youth”.

YES Network seeks to treat young people “as equal partners in development” and primarily focusses on nurturing and supporting youth-lead social enterprises. To date, over 200,000 young people have been engaged by the programme.

Shah Mehmood is a remarkable example of the program’s success. Mehmood lives in the Federally Administrated Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan – a region notorious for Taliban infiltration. With limited facilities and opportunities, young people in FATA are at high risk of engaging in violent criminal activity. In the context of this turbulence Shah Mehmood established a cricket academy.

This remarkably successful project has produced outstanding local players, several of whom have been selected by the National Cricket Academy of Pakistan for further training. Mehmood’s project is a youth-lead solution, providing a platform for vulnerable children and generating income for those coaching. His work demonstrates the sort of creative solutions that YES Network seeks to generate.  

Capitalising on the success of their social enterprise incubation projects, YES Network is now attempting to popularise the notion of youth-lead social enterprise as a social solution.

YES Network has lead successful campaigns to have social enterprise integrated into the curriculums of 40 leading universities and 175 technical and vocational training schools. 

Ali Raza Khan sees new ways of thinking about youth as critical to tackling the problems facing Pakistan.

He claims that “a disengaged youth is the biggest threat and stumbling block in the progress and prosperity of the country. A disengaged youth is a hazard, which has the potential to turn into a disaster.” Khan emphasises the importance of the YES ideology as more than an engine of social change, he claims it as pivotal to Pakistan’s development, “It is very unfortunate that reading and writing are intentionally taught in our schools, but not resilience and responsibility […] If Pakistan has to survive, we must see youth engagement as our central comparative advantage.”