International Youth Day is commemorated each year on 12 August in order to highlight the vital role of youth in socio-economic development of society. Youth are also encouraged around the world to organize various programs to raise awareness about the situation of youth in their respective countries. The theme for International Youth Day 2018 is safe spaces for youth.

Youth need safe spaces where they can come together, engage in activities related to their diverse necessities and interests, participate in decision making processes and freely express themselves. While there are many types of spaces, safe spaces ensure the dignity and safety of youth. Safe spaces such as civic spaces enable youth to engage in governance and electoral process; public spaces afford youth the opportunity to participate in sports, other leisure activities in the community and extra-curricular activities at the educational institutions; digital spaces help youth interact virtually across borders with everyone through expressing their views on social media; and well planned physical spaces can help accommodate the needs of youth especially those vulnerable to violence.

According to the latest National Human Development Report launched by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Pakistan currently has the largest percentage of young people ever recorded in its history; 64% of the total population is below the age of 30 while 29% is between the ages of 15 and 29 years. Pakistan has become one of the youngest countries in the world and the second youngest in the South Asian region after Afghanistan. This youth bulge will critically impact Pakistan as a country if not dealt with appropriately, depending on how the country invests in the youth by providing them with quality education, employment and meaningful engagement opportunities that could empower our young to unleash their potential.

According to the report, only 14 out of 195 countries spend less on education than Pakistan while nine of these have a lower HDI ranking than Pakistan. It also stated that 9.45 million children at the primary level were estimated to be out of school in 2015 and to achieve this goal by 2030 Pakistan must increase its net ratio to a yearly growth of 3.8 per cent. The report further mentions that 90% of Pakistani youth do not have access to recreational facilities, 15% have access to the internet, 8% to radio and 48% own a mobile phone. The report suggests that Pakistan needs to create 4.5 million new jobs over the next five years and enroll millions of its out of school children in coming years to properly utilize 64 %t of the youth bulge that provides a unique opportunity for its economy to grow faster and sustainably.

Youth has become decisive age group in electoral process as according to the statistics released by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) reveals that young people under age group of 18-35 years, constitute 43% of all registered voters.

In Pakistan, young students despite, being the major stakeholder in higher education sector with enrolment of more than 1.7 million at 190 universities and 114 regional campuses, are missed out in the mainstream debate of higher education policies. They are not even consulted for any major policy decision. During 1970s, there was effective representation of students in the universities’ statutory decision making forums i.e senate and syndicate. The university campuses were centres of student activities i.e dialogues, poetry sessions, theatre performance, study circles and interaction with eminent speakers. Such useful activities were greatly helped in inculcating values and qualities of leadership, active citizenship, and good communication, culture of dialogue, peace, tolerance, co-existence, and harmony.

Through ban on student unions, the rights and available platforms for the educated youth were not only taken away but we also failed to provide them alternative podiums for their meaningful engagement and participation in extra-curricular activities. This gap was exploited by the extremist groups at the university campuses which resulted in unsafe university campuses.

After the historic 18th Constitutional Amendment in 2010, affairs and policies related to youth have become a provincial subject. Now the major responsibility lies with the provincial governments to undertake practical steps for this important segment of the society.

It is also hoped that the newly elected governments would ensure fulfillment of their commitments made during recent general elections towards youth development and empowerment in Pakistan through allocation of 4% of GDP for overall education and one percent for higher education, social inclusion of youth including participation in decision-making as well as access to quality education and health care, provision of employment and other related opportunities. Each provincial government should also announce youth policy in consultation with concerned stakeholders on priority basis.

The recent election results also reveal that the electoral politics still revolves around the electable politicians. We have decreased the civic spaces for potential young leadership through imposing ban on student unions and ineffective local bodies system which were considered as nurseries for young leadership hailing from middle class.

The International Youth Day 2018 demands us for provision of basic services and facilities to youth to enable them to play a significant role as active contributors to society. Similarly, without the existence of safe spaces, youth from different races, ethnic background, gender, religious affiliation or cultural background may feel intimidated to freely contribute to the community. With safe spaces to engage, youth can effectively contribute towards development and promoting values of peace, tolerance, co-existence, harmony and social cohesion. The youth can serve as catalysts for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) if they are engaged properly.

 

The writer is a freelance columnist associated with the development and education sector.

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