Are young people the answer to overcoming tension and violence in Pakistan?
Young people trained through the Peace Forums in Pakistan project have been spreading messages of multi-faith acceptance through film clubs, social media and performance in the Multan District, a region prone to sectarian conflict. Shaun Vincent, Central and South Asia regional director at VSO, explores this unlikely counter-terror source.
The recent history of South Punjab, Pakistan, is one scarred with violence and sectarian conflict. With its own distinct culture, rural poverty, and dynamic blend of Muslim, Christian and Hindu inhabitants, tension is not uncommon.
“South Punjab region has its own culture and beliefs, and Multan district is the urban centre. Extremists use its relationship to the rest of the region to negatively manipulate people,” says VSO’s Sheryar Khan.
Over the past couple of years though, pockets of tensions have been defused by an unlikely source – young people.
Running from June 2013 for two years, the Peace Forums in Pakistan project trained local youth in community peacebuilding in partnership with local NGO Women’s Rights Association. They were supported to understand what role they could play in conflict resolution and to use techniques, including the use of film discussion clubs, social media and radio, to help communities recognise and value diversity.
Youth solidarity against terror
The vast majority (86%) of the 200+ youth volunteer peace workers on the project reported that their communities were more able to recognise diversity of faiths by the end of the project.
Most telling though, are the stories of young people involved in the project organising themselves organically to respond to everyday community issues as well as barbaric events.
At 10.30am on 16 December 2014, seven gunmen entered the Army Public School in Peshawar, North West Pakistan, and opened fire. They went on to end the lives of 145 people, including 132 schoolchildren.
While much of Pakistan was still paralysed with shock and fear, youth volunteers hundreds of miles away in Multan decided to organise a condolence event to express sorrow – as well as to show a united front of religious solidarity to defuse the anger in the local Christian community.
Whilst 61% of those trained as youth volunteers on the Peace Forums in Pakistan project passed on the training to others, they were not always met with open arms.
In one incident Christian bishops, clashed over differing attitudes to multi-faith tolerance.
One bishop, inspired by youth peacebuilding volunteers, was moved to invite non-Christian community members to the church’s Christmas celebrations. The other felt that only Christians should be welcomed to their place of worship. A heated debate ended in a falling out between the two.
Local youth volunteers came to hear of the conflict and invited them both to discuss their positions in forum, in which messages of peace, common to all faiths, were stressed. The two bishops not only resolved their initial dispute amicably, but agreed that future community events and celebrations should not be confined to religious believers.
Shakantula Devi is a youth volunteer who has set up her own peace-building organisation. She explains that young people are the most effective conduit for building harmony between faiths:
“Impact of peace forums, conventions, policy dialogues and community events can be seen more in youth. The notion behind the significant change among youth is their acceptability and adaptability to accommodate the inter-religious differences.”
“Pakistan is our homeland irrespective beyond the limitations of color, caste or creed. No matter we are Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims or Christians; we all bow in front of same God to whom we call with different names as per our religious beliefs,” she said.
What next for youth peacebuilding in Pakistan?
Peace Forums in Pakistan emerged organically after VSO was forced to suspend its usual programming and projects with international volunteers in the country in 2009 due to worsening security concerns. Local staff decided to focus on national volunteering and engaging young people. Four years on, they had won funding to launch the Peace Forums in Pakistan project formally.
The VSO Pakistan team is now hopes the project can be developed and replicated in more communities across Pakistan, to really harness the energy and commitment of youth as a force for change.
Find out more by accessing the full project evaluation: End Project Evaluation - Peace Forums in Pakistan [PDF]