Young woman speaking to British MPs and Members of the Punjab Parliamentary Assembly
Young woman speaking to British MPs and Members of the Punjab Parliamentary Assembly.

September 2015

The primary school in Kandan Siyan lies on the outskirts of Sialkot, a provincial town half way between capital Islamabad and cultural hub Lahore. Air conditioning is non-existent in this rural area and the humidity pervades the simple classrooms, while fans spinning round from the ceiling provide some relief. This is a school fundraising for furniture and a safe playground for its 700 poor children. Yet despite the school’s challenges, the visiting group of five British MPs were met with flowers by generous hosts, keen to spread the word that primary education is of vital importance for children in this close-knit community.

The MPs entered a room lined with men in shalwar kameezes of varying shades of grey and white. Fathers and grandfathers in this community were supporting female education and working to bring about change. In this community they worked with volunteers of the SUDHAAR Society and the British Council to fundraise for vital equipment and clean water so children are able to attend. They were critical in terms of getting girls into schools. They supported female education and they really believed in “it takes a whole village to educate a child” whether male or female.

The community group has challenged local parents, faced with difficult economic and social pressures, to keep their children in school.

It pays off. Children here love to learn and not one child could find fault with their education. One boy of around seven or eight told the MPs how he is enjoying learning English and has learnt how to say “my best friend”.

Most in Pakistan know that there is also a wider societal benefit to this. The country is facing a youth bulge. One hundred and forty million people in Pakistan are under the age of 30 and at the next election, for the first time, the majority of the electorate will be under 30. An educated, skilled workforce is what Pakistan needs to compete in the international economy and bring desperately needed prosperity to the country.

Education is also a key pillar of the solution to a more pressing challenge; that of extremism and violence, which is particularly prevalent in the north and in the southern city of Karachi, but prepared for in all cities, which are littered with road blocks and police checks. The scale of this challenge is immense: from over 5 million out of school children to the need to increase the teaching force and find another 1 million teachers. There is also a need to provide over 150,000 additional vocation training places each year, every year, for the next 5 years. The numbers can seem daunting but there is also a question of the quality of teaching and learning outcomes. Providing the teachers and the learning opportunities is only part of the equation – quality and impact is the other part. 

Some of these challenges were brought home late in 2014 when the tragedy of the terrorist attack on an army school in Peshawar shook the world’s media. More than 150 children and teaching staff were shot dead that day, and the horror acted as a wake-up call to Pakistan. Political parties and communities united to condemn it, and action was immediately taken to try and flush out all the terrorists and build a more cohesive society.

Rehman Chishti MP is particularly passionate about building a new society through championing minority rights, himself being the son of an Imam. His story, and those of the other MPs, acted as an inspiration to groups of what the British Council calls ‘Active Citizens’. The programme is being rolled out across universities in Pakistan as a mandatory module, and sees students of all disciplines identifying issues in their communities and creating social action projects to tackle them. MPs heard from a young Sikh man, who had faced immense opposition to provide training to pupils aged 5-14 on preventing sexual abuse. To Rehman, when minorities are welcomed for valuable contributions to society such as this, then Pakistan will have made vital progress.

Young people in Pakistan are striking in their energy and commitment to their communities. Other Active Citizens had taught skills to orphan boys, assisted pensioners in rediscovering their love of crafts, and even stood for parliament for local elections on a platform of cleaning up the community street-by-street. These young people are bright and understand the importance of community cohesion in tackling security challenges in Pakistan. 

The British Council also knows it needs to be working at all levels and at true scale to make a difference. Last year it piloted its DOSTI (meaning “friendship” in Urdu) project. Run in Karachi, a city beset by gang culture and armed muggings, the project aims to develop social skills through football and cricket. MPs made peace pledges to two girls’ DOSTI football teams, and Hannah Bardell MP was particularly struck by the potential for girls on this project. Having grown up playing football, she sees women in sport as a crucial way to improve gender equality. Balance across society, she believes, is of benefit to decision making and delivery.

Pakistan still tends to suffer in this regard, particularly in its rural communities. Girls with high aspirations sometimes face a battle with parents on higher education in particular. MPs were able to confront this head on with young women in receipt of the Scottish Scholarship Scheme, delivered by the British Council. Successful applicants receive £50, equivalent to a third of the Pakistani tuition fees or two years’ worth of transport. It allows young women to be able to convince their parents that a Masters is feasible. Simply the knowledge that their daughter has been successful and that higher education is not such a financial burden is enough to make these young women’s dreams a reality.

On a dry evening in monsoon season at the University of Punjab, Hannah Bardell and Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh MP heard stories of women who could now support their families following the opportunities their Masters had afforded. For Tasmina, it is women such as these, and women across the Muslim world, that hold the key to peace in the region. She has called on Pakistan to lead on a women’s conference at the forthcoming Commonwealth Conference, arguing that women hold a great influence on children from birth.  If they are committed to countering extremism, they will pass this onto their children. 

Yasmin Qureshi MP also believes it is important that young Pakistanis rediscover their heritage. The MPs visited a recently restored Haman in the 1000 year old city of Lahore. The project has been controversial in a country where scarce resources are needed for health and education. But for the Walled City Authority of Lahore, bringing the local community into a project such as this was crucial in giving them a sense of ownership and pride in their country’s heritage. Pakistan is a melting pot of culture, with influences from Hinduism, Buddhism, British colonialism and many cultural forms of Islam, from Persia, Central Asia and Afghanistan. For Yasmin, it is important that young Pakistanis understand this and celebrate the diversity of their own culture.

Schools and colleges across the country are promoting just that, with 70 schools in Punjab alone recipients of the highest level of the British Council’s International School Award. To celebrate these achievements, MPs were greeted at the Children’s Library by children dressed in the national dresses and languages of Japan, France, China, Scotland and, optimistically, India. Catherine West MP reflected that we should all be working together globally for Pakistan to promote diplomacy, not armed conflict. Like many visitors to this country she sees its massive potential and thinks it would be wonderful to be able to revive tourism, trade and international students coming to study at Pakistan’s leading universities.

There are huge challenges to come: training 63% more teachers to teach the growing youth population; shifting some attitudes away from extremism and towards cooperation; addressing misconceptions about Pakistan in the UK and global media; achieving true gender equality in education, politics and elsewhere; and strengthening the fragile democracy. But as Peter Upton, British Council Director Pakistan, emphasises, it all comes down to the country’s youth bulge. 

Pakistan’s youth is smart, motivated, resourceful and – to most importantly – hopeful. As MPs listened to Pakistani children at the Lahore Children’s Library, representing cultures from around the globe and singing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, it was possible to see a future for them in a safe and prosperous Pakistan that is open to the world and provides them the lives and opportunities they deserve.  

Author: Siobhan Foster, British Council Policy & Parliamentary Officer

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