By Fayyaz Bhidal, Research Manager at Sustainable Development Policy Institute
Internationally, the average age of eligibility for election to national parliament starts at 25 years old. According to a UNDP 2012 Global Parliamentary Report, approximately 1.65 percent of parliamentarians globally are in their 20s, while 11.87 percent are in their 30s. However, the global average age of parliamentarians is 53 years old.
In Pakistan, youth represent 60 percent of the total population, but their voice is largely unrepresented in the political system. The youth population is not only a dynamic source of innovation and creativity, but has contributed to and even catalyzed important changes in political systems, power-sharing dynamics, and economic opportunities since Pakistan was created. One leading force for these changes is the Youth Parliament of Pakistan which was created in 2007 to engage youth in dialogue on important issues affecting Pakistan. Within local government, youth are also taking an active role in achieving implementation of work. In the recently held local government polls of Khyber Pakhtunkwa Province of Pakistan, 3,339 seats were devoted for the youth.
Pakistan is a democratic state where every citizen has a right to education, to a reasonable standard of living, and to choose and influence the political leadership. With respect to that statement, youth are entitled to an equal right of political participation just as any other age group. A national mandate allows youth aged 18 years and above to vote during elections.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA):
“Meaningful youth participation involves recognizing and nurturing the strengths, interests, and abilities of young people through the provision of real opportunities for youth to become involved in decisions that affect them at individual and systemic levels.”
Since the breakout of recent political upheavals in Pakistan, youth have been politically active predominantly through political movements, rather than engaging with or working as part of political parties. This group of politically active youth includes students, young professionals, and young socialists and democrats – groups who traditionally have been politically active at the university level but often end up excluded from policy development and disillusioned with political leadership and institutions later on.
This type of participation has resulted in a disorganized system of political activism of youth instead of formal groupings.
The Commonwealth Youth Program states:
“As there are many types of developmental processes, cultures and unique individuals in the world, participation is not any one phenomenon. There are various definitions of participation. A basic concept of participation however, is that people are free to involve themselves in social and developmental processes and that self-involvement is active, voluntary, and informed.”
The focus on youth in terms of their collective engagement in the political arena is a relatively new priority, yet extremely timely – particularly in light of recent events and the democratic transition in Pakistan. A framework needs to be created to leverage an adequate representation of youth in formal Pakistani political institutions and processes.
The Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), with support from The Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), organized a seminar in February entitled “Youth and democratic development in Pakistan.” Dr. Fauzia Hameed from Mutihida Qaumi Movement identified educational reforms as being necessary to make Pakistan’s education system more equal and raise standards because, “we are not teaching our youth according to the requirements of [their] current age.”
Dr. Bushra Ghaur from Awami National Party (ANP) noted the sacrifices made by youth, but also that Pakistani youth remain less engaged because of previous bans on student politics that excluded young people from engagement in politics. The political system needs to be reviewed to ensure inclusivity.
To make such a long-term objective as ensuring an inclusive system tangible, it is necessary to recognize the vitality of youth engagement in Pakistan as stakeholders in peace-building and agents of change.
There are two potential initiatives to empower youth participation in the Pakistani political cycle:
First, the promotion of legal frameworks, policies, and plans that will encourage more substantial youth representation within electoral and parliamentary processes. This participation of young people should include men and women equally through inclusive political processes and democratic parties. Youth must also be actively engaged in public administration and local governance, at the local, sub-national, and national levels.
Secondly, youth must be encouraged to take part in decision-making and development processes, particularly those related to governance and the implementation of sustainable solutions for humanitarian and peace building initiatives.
In conclusion, given the highly influential and momentous needs for youth presence in Pakistani political system, the role of youth should be formalized. The institutional political process should be revisited, to provide an equality of participation and authority for youth.. The current political leadership should be shaken up and maximum measures should be taken to reduce and eliminate the disenfranchisement of young people in the national political system of Pakistan.
Fayyaz Bhidal is the Research Manager at Sustainable Development Policy Institute and was a 2014 CIPE-Atlas Corps Think Tank LINKS Fellow.