The South Asia Channel

Democratize Pakistan’s Youth

Most of Pakistan's population is under 29. Pakistan needs to engage them in the democratic process through student government associations in colleges.

Pakistani children sit on a tank as they enjoy the park during a public holiday ahead of National Day celebration in Rawalpindi on March 22, 2015.  AFP PHOTO / Farooq NAEEM        (Photo credit should read FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani children sit on a tank as they enjoy the park during a public holiday ahead of National Day celebration in Rawalpindi on March 22, 2015. AFP PHOTO / Farooq NAEEM (Photo credit should read FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1980, Pakistan reached a demographic milestone; adults constituted 52 percent of the total population. Since then, a demographic transition has taken place. Now 110 million of Pakistan’s 180 million citizens are 29 years old or younger, and 50 million are between the ages of 15 and 29.  This “demographic dividend” is expected to last until 2045, after which the average age will increase rapidly. Before this demographic transition comes to pass, it is critical that Pakistani youth are mobilized in productive ways, gainfully employed, and politically enfranchised. Otherwise, the future of Pakistan may well be defined by political, economic, and social tumult.

Thankfully, the current demographic landscape could portend a brighter future for Pakistan. One recent study stated that a substantial majority of Pakistani youth believe that they will have a role in changing the country for the better. (They are also better educated than their parents; the same study cited statistics that showed the most educated person in 50 percent of all Pakistani households is now below the age of 30.)  In fact, the significant rate of youth participation — 63 percent — in the 2013 national elections demonstrates that young Pakistanis channel their concerns for Pakistan’s future in a democratic way and seek to participate in the country’s political discourse.

However, concerns for the future of Pakistani democracy persist. The country’s largest demographic is disillusioned and pessimistic — 94 percent of Pakistani youth thought the nation was on the wrong path — and only a small proportion of them have confidence in national or local governments, the courts, or the police. A survey of Pakistan’s 18-29 year olds conducted before the May 2013 elections revealed that only 29 percent saw democracy as a model system of governance; 32 percent favored military rule; and 38 percent believed the best option was a system of Islamic Sharia.

This disillusionment could be the result of various elements, such as the government’s inability to ensure universal civil liberties and provide basic services. Pakistan was rated 5 on the Freedom House Civil Liberties Index in 2015, on a scale of 1 to 7, where 7 is considered the worst. Basic services are also lacking; 40 percent of Pakistan’s population suffers from malnutrition, energy shortages prevail throughout the country and violence against minorities has witnessed an alarming increase. The lack of a seasoned democratic political process has added to this disillusionment, since until the 2013 elections, no civilian government had been able to transfer power to another civilian government successfully. However, it is the weakness of the country’s educational system that is the greatest threat to the survival of Pakistani democracy.

For the 71 percent of youth who have obtained some sort of formal education, there has been little reinforcement of democratic ideals. Arshed Bhatti, a noted development practitioner, put it succinctly: “Our educational system is actually anti-democratic and does not promote the democratic system.” In his view, instead of creating class harmony, the educational system reinforces class divisions and biases through Pakistan’s conflicting methods of education (i.e., private, public, and madrassa). Moreover, journalist Zubeida Mustafa believes that “the other very important role of education is to develop the capacity to think on a collective level, which unfortunately is lacking [in Pakistan].”

A 2010 study conducted by educator Muhammad Nazir, explored the potential for democratic changes in Pakistan’s educational practices by surveying public and private school teachers from urban and rural areas of Baluchistan and Sindh provinces. He found that educational practices in Pakistan are authoritarian and bureaucratic in action and that collaboration and reflection do not play a part in the teacher’s decision-making processes across schools. In fact, he noted that teachers across both public and private schools were not comfortable with the idea of educational change through participatory or democratic approaches.

These perspectives demonstrate the lack of forums in schools and universities for the promotion of democratic ideals, values, or frameworks, which are critical if the demographic distribution is to pay a dividend and not incur a deficit.

Many writers have written about what a school with democratic values should look like, and according to international education professor Lynn Davies, “basic political education for students is not enough; democratizing the actual forms and organization of schooling itself is required.” Davies rightly proposed that individual schools should also look within their own environments to ensure that cultural and local factors are incorporated while creating management systems based on democratic principles.

Coupling the current state of the education system with the youth’s pessimism regarding Pakistan’s trajectory, there is a clear need to provide a platform for students to organize and learn about the democratic process within their educational institutions. The establishment of Student Government Associations (SGA) within schools and universities is one way to achieve this.

By providing students with a form of representation and a pluralistic environment for leadership development, SGAs will encourage civic engagement and participation in democratic processes. To ensure that these associations accord with local and cultural factors, as Davies suggested, SGAs can be designed to emulate the structure of the National Central Government, consisting of executive, legislative and judicial branches. Just like the actual electoral process, the SGAs can also have election committees that facilitate fair and legitimate polls, remind students about their civic duties, such as voting, and provide information on student candidates.

The provision of a platform for students to become involved in an apolitical and mock democratic process will not only improve their educational experiences but will also give them an opportunity to learn first-hand about the importance of pluralistic and democratic organizational systems. The creation of SGAs can be the first step in achieving a grassroots solution that mitigates youth disillusionment and supports democratic processes. Over a longer horizon, SGAs will provide leadership development and organizational training, fostering a future generation of selfless leaders — a political class that Pakistan sorely needs, supported by an electorate that the world cannot afford to ignore.

Athar Javaid is the President of INDUS, an independent non-profit dedicated to a progressive, stable Pakistan. He can be reached at
Anam Abdulla is an intern at INDUS and a Master’s student at Johns Hopkins University SAIS (expected 2015).

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