The developing world is currently experiencing a youth bulge. Half of the world’s population—just over 3.5 billion people—are under 30. Approximately 1.8 million of those young people are between 10 and 24; of them, 880 million are women, often concentrated in developing countries. A large young population can be a force for progressive change—and in countries like Pakistan, young people are leading the charge for more equitable societies and standing up to regressive norms in their communities.
Shahzad Khan, who founded the national youth-led organization Chanan Development Association (CDA) at 18 in 2004, grew up in rural Bahawalpur with fellow clan members. When Khan was 12, he found out that his 15 year-old sister was to be forcibly married; distraught and at a loss, he stopped eating in familial protest. One by one, his family members joined him—but when his father conceded and agreed to call off the marriage, Khan’s family was driven out of their village and forced to build a new life in Lahore, renting a small apartment and enrolling Khan in a government-run school.
It was here that the CDA was born. While sharing stories with his school friends, Khan learned that they all had similar experiences—and he and his peers believed that they had a responsibility to counter them. They started CDA, initially envisioned as one interactive theatre workshop, to engage young people in dialogue and question some of the customary practices holding their communities back. The number of these workshops slowly grew and diversified into peer education sessions with youth leaders on how to use media and information technology for advocacy as well as providing them with the tools to form their own groups—thus empowering more young people. Today CDA works with 360 groups and 10,000 volunteers and has a reach of 50,000 through all of their channels—and they’re harnessing their influence and power to not only counter hate speech and extremism, but also zero in on issues of gender in the region.
Forced and early marriage and other forms of violence against women are a huge issue in Pakistan, which ranks as the second-lowest country on the Global Gender Gap Index. Over 21 percent of young women and girls suffer from a form of sexual or relationship violence in the region.
Gulalai Ismail was inspired to act against this injustice when her best friend was told she couldn’t pursue her own dreams of being a pilot because, at the age of 13, she was going to be forced to marry a man 15 years her senior.
“Her dreams were shattered,” Ismail told Ms. “I was shocked. It opened up to me that education in our country is only for girls who are privileged: Only privileged girls can set their goals for life and can work to achieve them. The rest have to follow the norm of the society.”
In 2002, when Ismail was 16, she and her sister Saba founded Aware Girls to fight sexism against the challenging backdrop of the North-West Frontier Province, an area often under threat of violence by the Taliban and characterized by a feudal and tribal culture which has been very discriminatory to women. “I had the dream of every girl being able to live her life to her fullest potential without gender becoming a barrier,” she said. Aware Girls seeks “to educate girls about their rights and to give them leadership skills so that they can speak up for their rights in their families and be agents of change in their communities.”
Salma Bibi is one of those girls. Bibi married at a young age, but participated in an Aware Girl’s political leadership training in 2012 that gave her the tools to become more engaged. She started to take part in the civic and political processes of her community and even gained her family’s support when running in a local election—which she won. She is now committed to changing the lives of girls in her community by engaging them in the same way.
Engaging youth in the participatory process is key to sustainable, progressive development—and often leads to empowerment and shifting norms for women and girls. “Certainly many young people probably would not have an understanding of gender issues if it was not for the role and contribution of youth work,”Layne Robinson, Head of Youth Programmes at the Commonwealth Secretariat, told Ms. “Youth work has a lot to do with building upon the foundation of rights but also creating a space where young women can have their voice heard, especially in decision-making.” Robinson noted that youth-center work led by young people is gaining traction around the world, but that battles to maintain funding and government support for those programs goes on.
The work Ismail and Khan do has certainly demonstrated the impact youth-centered effiorts can have on changing the lives of women and girls and shifting cultural norms. If the world—and not just Pakistan—is experiencing the youth bulge, then the programmatic expansion of youth work could be a huge driver of realizing gender equality around the world.