PAY ATTENTION TO YOUTH ADVOCACY, SAYS SIDRA IQBAL
Youth advocacy in Pakistan is ever changing, as young leaders across the country are standing up for social issues. Young advocates now have multiple platforms with the evolution of social media, to raise their voices. We got the chance to speak to one of the most celebrated journalists in Pakistan who also happens to be a leading youth development advocate. Hereon, Sidra Iqbal answered some of our most pressing questions.
AS A YOUTH DEVELOPMENT ADVOCATE, HOW DO YOU THINK PAKISTAN'S YOUTH CAN KEEP UP WITH OTHER COUNTRIES DEVELOPING RELATIVELY FASTER?
Pakistan’s young people are a big advantage and a huge dividend for the country. This youthful population is both vibrant and energetic. They have the energy and dynamism to actually turn things around. If we look around in the region only, all this is possible within one generation’s lifetime, provided that we become very focused. In my opinion, the Government needs to lead a national policy of imparting the young people of Pakistan with "Skills of Tomorrow", the upcoming array of digital & life skills. Today, more than 20 million young people of school going age are out of school. To harness their true potential & future opportunities, they need to be given the skills and expertise that makes them relevant today and allows them to grow in the future too. These include digital skills, life skills, vocational knowledge, craftsmen skills, and a goal-oriented mindset.
WHAT, IN YOUR OPINION, ARE WE LACKING WHEN IT COMES TO YOUTH DEVELOPMENT?
I feel that the government, policymakers, and a variety of development organizations have some fantastic programs running that are able to help, groom, and engage a lot of young people by equipping them with skills, ideas, and connections and even easy access to startup capital for their entrepreneurial ventures. However, what we are missing out is sustainable national momentum. We have a lot of isolated, amazing initiatives and duplication of efforts, but they are not working in tandem. There seems to be a big gap when it comes to working in cohesion and together. Presently, the state and society at large are faced with so many urgent challenges, that while all of them are linked to the wellbeing of the greater population and youth in particular, we somehow are ubable to focus on the long-term vision. This urgent fire fighting and race for survival is a big drawback.
WHAT CAN THE GOVERNMENT DO TO ENSURE OUR YOUTH CULTURE IS ON TRACK?
I believe that the government must create and enable an inclusive environment. They need to have policies and programs that embrace and celebrate diversity and an equal opportunity approach. There has to be ease of starting & running businesses, ease of access to capital, focus on digital & vocational skills and most importantly, we must actively work to do away with the real and perceived barriers to access. There are those in society who are more vulnerable than others such as people who are differently-abled, women, ethnic & religious minority groups, communities who have previously been ignored in mainstream policy and development projects. I believe the government needs to have some special focus on them. Their biggest responsibility, in this case, is to be inclusive and to be an equal opportunity enabler.
WHAT AVENUES CAN WE OPEN FOR OUR YOUTH'S PROGRESS?
I think we need to open more avenues of education and dialogue. Sometimes we are not allowing the young people to actually come and express themselves. We are trying to find solutions while having a limited understanding of their problems. A lot of young people are not involved in the decision-making. Yes, there are wiser, more experienced people but until and unless you involve the young people and get them to engage and contribute, all the solutions designed will face a disconnect. Involving young people in the solution design will also train them to be future community leaders.
WHAT CAN THE AVERAGE PARENT DO TO AID THEIR CHILD IN UNLOCKING THEIR POTENTIAL?
I think every parent must develop better listening skills. Most of the time young people feel they are not heard or seen. Especially when a parent is talking, they talk about the expectations they have from young people but seldom do they try and understand what their child’s own dreams are and where his/her or own happiness lies. Unless you bridge that gap you are literally pushing the young people away. A Parent today needs to be more of a coach, a friend, a mentor, and a trusted caretaker where their ward can actually open up and talk about what they like, voice their concerns, ask candid questions and express what their true dreams and aspirations are.
HOW DOES PAKISTAN'S CURRENT EDUCATION SYSTEM AFFECT THE YOUTH?
I believe the present education system in Pakistan is very divided. It has a lot of streams and layers to it. Of course, the demand is huge and our resources are limited. The State is unable to provide education for all. Also, it is not a standardized uniform system. There are elite schools, private schools, NGO-run schools, government schools, and also the Madrassa system for the most underserved communities. The opportunities available to the graduates of each of these systems are very different. There is no way a person coming from an elite school, who has been educated and trained in the English language and via an internationally designed curriculum can compete with a government medium school. So I think the education system in Pakistan is not providing a level playing field to all the graduates. If you come from a certain school, you will have access to a completely different set of opportunities that another school stream, especially a non-elite government school stream, cannot even think or dream of. This disparity and social inequality is holding many young people hostage to the vicious cycle of poverty and hopelessness.
HOW CAN WE ENCOURAGE THE YOUNGER GENERATION TO PURSUE STEM?
The only way to encourage young people to explore the STEM fields is to incentivize it. Need and merit-based scholarships must be offered to meritorious students at national and provincial levels. Media and popular culture must celebrate the STEM achievements of our academia and students. We have to bust stereotypical myths that assume that young people, especially girls from Pakistan are not good at STEM subjects. When a child is repeatedly told no, pointed to lack and barriers, we are in fact conditioning them to believe that it is impossible to succeed. We must disseminate hope, possibilities, and encouragement.