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Q&A: In Pakistan, Youth Participation Key to Progress

Malgorzata Stawecka interviews MUHAMMAD SHAHZAD, executive director of the Chanan Development Association in Pakistan

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 6 2012 (IPS) - The burgeoning youth population in Pakistan plays a vital role in addressing the country’s major challenges and in shaping its future, both for young people today and for generations to come.

“Meaningful youth participation means their participation in each and every stage, right from planning to execution and monitoring,” Muhammad Shahzad, executive director of the Chanan Development Association, told IPS.

Muhammad Shahzad, executive director of the Chanan Development Association in Pakistan. Credit: Malgorzata Stawecka/IPS

“But we can’t make things happen alone. We have to collaborate with adults, in the communities, in the government sector, civil society and also with the United Nations and other international performers,” he added.

At the age of 12, Muhammad Shahzad began a hunger strike to protest the forced marriage of his 15-year-old sister to an older landlord. The marriage was ultimately called off, but Shahzad and his family were forced to leave their village.

Shahzad eventually ended up with the foundation of Chanan Development Association (CDA), a non-profit organisation aimed at empowering young people in Pakistan.

The Friends of UNFPA, an organisation that mobilises funds and action for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), recognised Shahzad’s important contributions in promoting women’s and youth rights by honouring him with the 2012 Award for the Health and Dignity of Women and Girls in a ceremony in New York on Thursday.

“This award is the recognition not only for us as association but it’s also evidence that young people are considered as equal partners in development. It gives us encouragement and motivation that we’re not alone,” Shahzad told IPS.

IPS correspondent Malgorzata Stawecka spoke with Shahzad about the role that CDA plays in integrating Pakistani youth into the country’s policy-making processes and in effecting social change throughout the country.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What inspired you to create the Chanan Development Association? What is its main goal?

A: The idea of creating the CDA emerged when I went to school. My classmates and I founded a theater group with the name ‘Chanan’, which means ‘light’ in Punjabi, with the idea that we were going to lighten people’s lives, particularly those of young people and young girls.

We collaborated with various organisations in Pakistan to put on different performances throughout the country. After the performances, we would interact with the local youth, and we realised that a lot of them want to bring about change and to be heard, particularly when it comes to decisions about their own lives. But they lacked a platform, and they lacked guidance.

We decided that we should create an organisation and provide these young people with a platform where we could enhance their skills and where they could get together and ensure that their voices were heard in the decision making process. That’s how we started the CDA in 2006.

Q: What have you achieved so far? What are the main successes of the CDA’s work?

A: Our major successes have been in the last five years. In 2009 we collaborated with UNFPA to launch a programme called Youth Peer Education Network (Y-PEER) in Pakistan. With the help of UNFPA, we have been able to reach out to young people in 65 districts of Pakistan.

We organised campaigns about the sexual and reproductive rights of young people, child marriage, and gender equality and equity. Young people were leading these campaigns and they’ve been heard, not only in the development sector, but also in their own families and communities and at the government level.

We were also part of the national task force that helped the government to formulate provincial youth policy, a process that UNFPA led. The provincial youth policy recently launched in the province of Punjab has a full chapter that talks about population, the health issues of young people and child marriage.

Another success is that through grassroots initiatives and using a peer-to-peer approach, we have engaged about 20,000 young people, particularly those who were out of school, those who belonged to the transgender community, drug users, people with disabilities and young people leaving with HIV.

We also encourage and are very proud of promoting young women’s leadership within the organisation and within communities.

Q: How does CDA engage in policy advocacy at the national level?

A: We work on policy advocacy at different levels.

When we organise any event or workshop, we invite parliamentarians and senators, because we believe that if they are not part of the event, the policies are not going to be youth-friendly. We also approach their offices. For example, we use Valentine Day as one of the events when we send flowers to parliamentarians and advocate for the right to choose a life partner.

There are also different task forces and forums to which the government often invites us. Beside that, we also organise different interactive dialogues between parliamentarians and people.

We’re very fortunate because we’ve been have good credibility with the media. We invite members of the media to our events, not just to cover them but also to only interact with the young people and highlight important issues.

Q: Is there a role for youth in a country’s population planning?

A: I believe that the youth in our country are not meaningfully engaged when it comes to developing population policy. If young people are not engaged, particularly in population issues, or if they are neglected, then the population is going to be double or triple in the coming years. But we have limited resources to provide them with education, health facilities and employment.

UNFPA is taking the lead among the other U.N. agencies to provide opportunities to young people and youth health organisations to partner with them. But I still believe that population departments should engage young people more meaningfully so they can have positive impact on the future.

 
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