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PIPS holds Consultation on “Promoting Narratives of Diversity, Inclusion, and Peace among Youth” in Lahore

Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) organized a two-day consultation on “Promoting Narratives of Diversity, Inclusion, and Peace among Youth” on 19 & 20 June 2023 at Avari Hotel, Lahore.

The consultation consisted of four sessions on different themes. Academics, political activists, journalists, lawyers, representatives of civil society, and youth, among others, participated in the talk. Programme Manager PIPS Ahmed Ali, and journalist as well as researcher Imran Mukhtar moderated the sessions respectively.

Experts at the event stressed that the state and educational institutions should engage the youth by initiating dialogue and promoting critical thinking among them, as a policy, to address their problems and make them productive citizens.

They said that the present education system of the country had failed to socialize youth; rather it was creating a vacuum that was being fulfilled by social media in a negative way. They also called for creating economic opportunities for youth through technical and real-life learning.

First Day of Consultation:

On the first day, two sessions were held with academics, scholars, political activists, and members of civil society, besides others.

In the first session on “the Challenges of Navigating a Multicultural and Multiethnic Society”, experts discussed incorporating Punjab’s religious and ethnic diversity into education to improve youths’ social skills to interact in a multicultural setting, and the need for social networks for youths of different cultural backgrounds. They also talked about strategies for curbing religious and ethnic prejudices among youth, overcoming language and communication barriers among them, and empowering youth to become advocates of multiculturalism.

In the second session on “Punjab Youth Policy: Current Status, Challenges, and Opportunities”, participants discussed the Punjab Youth Policy, youth engagement in legislation with focus on participation, and combating unemployment, and social exclusion among young people.

Visiting professor of sociology at the University of the Punjab Dr. Khalil Ahmad taking part in the discussion said that education was the key for peaceful coexistence. “We should focus on education as an organization and at the level of content, and processing.” He said that the government would have to introduce a comprehensive judicious education policy as the present one has failed to socialize the youth.

“Youth should be engaged,” said Ahmad, adding that it was the primary responsibility of universities to initiate a dialogue among students to make them productive citizens. He also said that there was a need to introduce a mechanism for prudent use of social media. He emphasized introducing exchange programmes among different universities to promote diversity, and inclusion among youth.

Educationist and writer Dr Amjad Tufail stressed the need for bringing social justice to address problems of youth and to bring peace in the society. “Peace cannot prevail unless there is social justice in a society.” He viewed that the caste-based system in the country, especially in Punjab, was also a major hurdle in bringing social harmony in the society.

He explained that there was a closed ethnic mindset in Punjab which was based on caste and area of living. He said that the people had divided themselves into small closed groups, which tend to violence. He added that these groups had an understanding that they wouldn’t survive if they didn’t show their strength. “We have to introduce responsible citizenship, which starts at home,” he said, adding that parents should learn parenting skills.

Tufail, who is head of the Department of Applied Psychology at Govt. M.A.O Graduate College Lahore, said that the present education system was theory-based; rather it should provide basic skills to students to help them find employment opportunities. Commenting on the suggestion of revival of student unions, he said that such bodies could be revived but they should not have the backing of political parties.

Chairperson Department of Islamic Thought & Civilization at the University of Management and Technology (UMT) Lahore Dr Hassan Shakeel Shah emphasized the need to introduce uniform education policy in the country. “The perspective of students of seminaries is different from those who study in the school system,” he said, adding that both don’t intermingle with one another when they study at university level.

Former vice chancellor of the University of Sargodha Dr Muhammad Saleem Mazhar underlined that they would have to teach culture, fine arts, literature, philosophy, and music to youth to change their behaviours and bring tolerance among them. He deplored that Pakistani society hasn’t been given an opportunity to grow naturally. “We have to promote music, and fine arts etc. among youth to engage them.”

Visiting faculty member at the Lahore School of Economics, and research associate at the Centre for Social Justice Faaria Khan said that they needed mainstreaming of all religions, and genders to inculcate diversity, and inclusion among youth and in the society. She said that the centre had held an extensive study to review content of those curriculum books published under the Single National Curriculum (SNC) from 2021 to 2023.

Ms Faaria informed the participants that the study revealed there was an abundance of Islamic content in those subjects, which were not related to Islamic studies. The research shows that there is no gender parity in the curriculum — a major hurdle in the way of inclusion. She said that there was glorification of war in the books. She admitted that hate material has significantly decreased in content.

Associate professor at Dr Hasan Murad School of Management in the UMT Dr Mohammad Ayaz said that they would have to ensure implementation of fundamental rights, as enshrined in the constitution, to bring social harmony in the society. “Everyone should have the freedom to practice his rights in a way that doesn’t violate the rights of others,” he underlined while referring to the right to speech.

Senior projects manager at the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) Amna Kausar speaking on her turn said that Punjab Youth Policy was formed in 2012 and Punjab was the first province to make its own youth policy after the 18th Amendment. It focuses on four ‘Es’ including “education, employment, engagement, and environment.” She remarked that policy talked about education and employment but didn’t mention too much about engagement. She said that the Youth Affairs Department in Punjab has done work on the economic up-scaling of youth.

She lamented that extremely low youth voter turnout, which remained 37 percent in 2018 general elections, was an indicator they were socially and politically excluded. “There is a need for political inclusion and political mobilization of youth in a healthy way,” she said. She called for empowering youth socially, politically, and economically by reviving student unions. “There should also be a dialogue on how political parties can make space for youth?”

Ms Amna said that the oversight role of provincial lawmakers in Punjab with regard to implementation of the youth policy was weak. She suggested that the Punjab Assembly Standing Committee on Youth Affairs should pass instructions to the youth department to issue its quarterly report on implementation of Punjab Youth Policy 2012. “This progress should be shared with youth and media on a quarterly basis.” She said that youth-centric debate should be held on the floor of the assembly at least once a year. The provincial legislature and its standing committee on youth should hold regular dialogue with youth and invite them to visit assembly and sensitize them about house business, she suggested.

Central Secretary Progressive Writers Association Pakistan Javed Aftab deplored that youth had been forced to leave the country as economic migrants as they did not get their due rights and employment opportunities in Pakistan. He referred to the incident in which a boat capsized off the coast of Greece while carrying illegal migrants including Pakistanis from Libya to Italy. He urged for revival of student unions saying this was the recipe of giving due rights to youth.

Chairperson Department of Political Science and International Relations at the UMT Dr Fatima Sajjad said that their intellectual deficit was also part of the problem. “Intellectual growth is not mentioned as a purpose of our education in our policy.” She said that they should encourage dialogue and questioning as a policy.

“We should provide youth with guidance, confidence, training, and platforms to facilitate them to build their careers,” said President Lahore Bar Association Rana Intezar Hussain. He said that youth needed guidelines about the choice of their profession. He added that youth should focus on personal development, and time-management, and move forward by setting their own goals.

Second Day of Consultation:

On the second day, two sessions were also held with academia, scholars, and journalists, among other experts.

In the first session on “Youth and Social Media”, a discussion was held with media persons, and teachers and students of media studies to explore social media’s influence on youths’ perception of themselves and the world around them.

The participants also talked about overconsumption of social media and mental wellbeing among youth, and role of social media in shaping up the social and emotional characters of young people. They shed light on anti-social behaviours among youth including cyberbullying and hate speech, and challenges in enforcing responsible social media use.

In the second session on “Public Education and Employability among Punjab Youth”, members of academia and civil society discussed contemporary formal and non-formal modes of learning and their utility for employability skills development among youth. They talked about promoting cross-cultural engagement through education and creating economic opportunities for youth through technical and real-life learning.

Director School of Communication Studies in the University of the Punjab Prof. Dr. Noshina Saleem said that students were heavily dependent on social media and its effects on them were both positive and negative. She said that students were vibrant on social networking sites — a habit that is helping them in improving their social and interpersonal skills. At the same time, social media is affecting academic performance of students, creating political polarization among them, and bringing trends of hate speech and aggression among them. She said that youth now had been living in a virtual world where “truth is a different paradigm” for them.

Ms Noshina endorsed that social media had been promoting fake news, and unethical journalism. She said that a proper policy would have to be formed to regulate and monitor this form of media. She underlined that the biggest challenge of the present time was to provide actual and real information to the people amidst the rise of social media.

Religious scholar and columnist Muhammad Zia ul Haq Naqshbandi said that social media could be used positively but the case of Pakistan was different. He said that mainstream media due to its extreme polarization and imbalanced policies had itself pushed youth towards social media. He explained that owners of private TV channels had a liking and disliking towards certain political parties, which is reflected in the content being produced by these platforms.

Chairperson Department of Film and Broadcasting in the University of the Punjab Prof. Dr. Lubna Zaheer said that social media was affecting the mental, emotional, and physical health of youth. She said that academic research about mental and emotional health showed that anxiety was increasing among youth and signs of inferiority complex were visible among them. “Social media is mainly promoting political intolerance and political hate speech.”

Tahir Mehdi of the Lok Sujag, a digital media platform, argued that they needed to break the myth that only print media had been the right forum of source of information in the past because this medium of journalism also remained involved in “yellow journalism.” A comparison reveals that the newspaper was the source of information of 17 percent people in the 1998 census of Pakistan that declined to 6 percent in the 2017 census, and the same happened with radio but TV viewership went up slightly, he said. The 2017 census also shows that mobile phones are the source of information for 98 percent of people, he also said.

“Things have changed now, and it will be a futile exercise if we force people to switch to the newspaper again and it is not possible,” Mehdi viewed. He said that major actors in the discussion of the negative side of social media were platforms and corporations themselves whose algorithms supported negativity and hate speech. “The business model of these corporations (who run social media platforms) is based on engagement,” he said adding, that they themselves promoted such content which gets the attention of more users, only to earn more money. “The role of these corporations was questionable.”

Mehdi said that imposition of national regulations on social media wouldn’t be practically possible and must have many consequences. He argued for making strong defamation laws along with ensuring their strict implementation instead of regulating social media. He added that social media platforms should also be brought under these laws to discourage fake and anonymous accounts.

Former advisor to chief minister Punjab Dr Zain Ali Bhatti said that social media was a cause of political polarization, which was being used to settle personal scores. People used to hit opponents below the belt on such platforms for their own satisfaction and to get more ratings. “We have set our aims for a very short term and are not aware of their consequences.” He supported the idea of constructive criticism.

Analyst, editor, and publisher Mujibur Rahman Shami said that Pakistan as a state didn’t control social media platforms. The local print and electronic media platforms work under regulations of the state of Pakistan and identities of people generating content for such organizations are clear, he added. He said that most of the social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok were neither registered in Pakistan nor the country has control over these.

Talking about the defamation laws, he said that the editor and publisher were held responsible for the defamatory content, irrespective of the fact who generated or wrote it, published by any mainstream media platform. “On the other hand, social media platforms are not answerable for their own content,” he said, adding that this was the basic question on which they had to think over.

Shami said that their problems had increased manifold because Pakistan as a state was no more functional to enforce its own regulations and laws including the defamation laws. He said that it had become very important how the state had to protect itself from the backlash of social media, which was on the expansion. “The society has to be protected from fake news and lies while ensuring freedom of expression.”

Shami suggested that Pakistan should ask social media platforms to get themselves registered with it locally so that they could be held responsible for the defamatory material. “We have to see how we can protect state and society while ensuring personal liberties.”

Dr Aftab Nasir, an assistant professor at the Department of Governance and Global Studies in the Information Technology University of the Punjab, said that the inherent link between education and employability was missing in Pakistan. “Our curriculum is outdated, and it doesn’t give life-skills to youth.” He said that the universities were imparting education in closed doors and did not know what was happening outside. “We have to define what kind of graduates we want to create.”

He said that the influence of state and nation-building efforts had affected their diversity. “There is a need to introduce local knowledge and bring local wisdom,” he said, stressing that the students should be taught actual history of the country.

Associate professor of education at the Forman Christian College University Lahore Dr. Ashar Johnson Khokhar said that a normal school should be open to everyone, including for children with special abilities.  He opposed the idea of separate schools for children with special disabilities. “Inclusion is almost zero at our school level.” He emphasized breaking taboos and the status quo that certain classes in the society can only have access to certain schools.

Khokhar underlined that there was disconnect between practical and theory in Pakistan and textbooks consisted of inbuilt biases and prejudices.

Director IT at the Lahore Garrison University Dr Ahmad Naeem Akhtar viewed that unemployment was a curse but it was an option as well in Pakistan because their youth did not look committed to delivering at the workplace. “For employability, the intention of a youth should not be what he would get from the employer, rather he should focus on what he has to deliver at his workplace.”

Chairperson at Center for Peace and Secular Studies Saeeda Diep said that their focus should be on primary education as Pakistan’s primary school teacher was not capable enough to train a student and make his foundation strong academically. “Our primary education is facing problems.” She maintained that the mindset of students couldn’t be changed at university level if they did not get primary education properly. She blamed the state for its unwillingness to set things in the right direction.

Ms Saeeda further remarked that their youth lacked critical thinking. “Critical thinking cannot be promoted among students until you will give them out of the box solutions.” She added that dialogue and debate at educational institutions could promote critical thinking and innovative ideas among students. She also stressed the importance of introducing indigenous culture among youth.