I believe everything in life happens for a reason. Every experience in your life helps you to reform you, prepare you, direct you and shape you. I entered the youth development field by accident. Youth development work was never on my radar. The story goes, that my elder brother applied for a job in the Family Planning Association of Pakistan. He got shortlisted. In the meantime, he passed the civil services examination of Pakistan. He encouraged me to apply for the said job.
Since I just got free after giving my post-graduation exams in political science, I decided to apply for the job to get some experience. I got selected instantly. I never wanted to stay in this field. I wanted to become a civil servant as it was seen as the most respectable job in our culture and country.
I was given the responsibility to assist the youth and women development section in designing, implementation, and evaluation of sexual reproductive health programs. Since it was my first job, I was working very hard to learn, grow, and contribute.
Very soon, I was given the responsibility to conduct and monitor the sexual reproductive health awareness sessions for young people across the country. I was traveling extensively. I had the opportunity to interact with many young people living in the rural and most deprived communities of Pakistan.
I got first-hand knowledge of the difficulties and tragedies faced by the young people. I heard countless cries of young people saying no one cares about us, no one trust us, no one values us, no one respect us and no one really wants to help us.
At that time, I was so much consumed in the delivery of my sexual reproductive health messages that I could not realize that young people who were attending my sessions had a very weak and limiting belief system. They were growing up in an environment of low-trust. They had so many problems in their lives. They were rejected by the society and they had very low self-esteem. Their attention was taken up by serious concerns. They were worried about the unmet needs of their families. They were looking for someone to believe in them. I had only a very superficial understanding of their deprivations. I wanted to resolve all their problems with a dose of information about sexual reproductive health.
Try to imagine the scenario: Young people that are humiliated and degraded by the society were asked to participate in the sexual reproductive health programs that offer nothing about how to uninstall a negative belief system and change their lives. To have all those needs – to be trusted, to be valued, respected, cared for and positively engaged and then to be told about sexual reproductive health. Imagine their frustration.
It was quite amazing that despite my inability to understand what was missing in the lives of young people, I was constantly getting great evaluations. Young people were trying to follow the model of success mutely that I defined for them. They did not vent out their feelings and frustrations to me. They were showing a great respect for me. They were hoping against hope that one day I might be able to offer something that could turn around their lives.
My career was growing at a great speed. I was continuously getting a boost in my perks and privileges. On the other hand, the sufferings of young people were also increasing at a great speed. Every time, I went back to those communities, I used to hear some terrible and heartbreaking stories of young people that destroyed their lives. I used to get very upset.
As my level of interaction was increasing, I started feeling that there was something seriously missing in my work. I started shifting my focus from myself to young people. I started accepting my inability to improve the condition of young people. I started realizing that simply providing youth with sexual reproductive health information will not change their situation.
I realized that our response to the serious situation facing young people has completely gone wrong. I started feeling very frustrated in my efforts to address the tragedies of young people. I realized that it is not poverty or deprivation in an absolute sense that hurts youth – not the lack of material goods or services as such that holds them back – but the loss of self-belief, trust, dignity, and self-respect. I realized that our families, educational institutions, communities, and organizations were producing and nourishing a psychology which brings out the lowest, most base part of human beings.
When I was going through this depressing and tough phase of my career, I was assigned the task of conducting an awareness raising session on reproductive health with the displaced people who migrated from Bangladesh in Lahore. When I went to the community to conduct a training session on sexual reproductive health, I saw a huge crowd of children, young people, adults, women and elderly people gathered to welcome me. They were hoping that I will make some big announcement for them. They did not realize that I came to conduct an awareness session on reproductive health in that community with young people. The community organized a ceremony to honor me. I was getting very perplexed deep inside.
I was thinking that my field supervisor who arranged the session had not communicated the purpose of the meeting clearly. My confusion heightened when a young man called Samiullah Khan, who was conducting the ceremony mentioned in the opening address very passionately that many government representatives and organizations had come here before only to deliver what was not needed by us and that everyone had exploited their troubles and made false promises.
As tension was creeping into my mind I decided that I would not conduct the session on reproductive health. When I was invited on the stage to share my views, I spoke briefly and said, “that today I have come here to listen to you and find ways to work with you, to harness local resources to deal with your challenges”. Although the community members were slightly disappointed to hear all this as they were expecting a big announcement, they offered complete support to work with me to overcome their challenges. I was deeply impressed by the passion and commitment shown by a young person to contribute to the development of his community. I decided to work with Samiullah. He became my primary source for communication with this community.
I left the community without conducting a session and discussed the situation with my supervisors. I was told that since their needs are beyond the scope of our work we cannot offer any assistance. Since I promised the community members that I would work with them to find a way to help children and young people grow in a safe environment, I decided to visit that community after my office hours as my office was not very happy to see my increasing engagement in that community. I decided to challenge the status quo. I decided to go beyond my job description. I decided to stop doing things that have very little or no impact on young people.
I had several meetings with Samiullah to decide what needed to be done and how it should be done in the absence of financial resources. The community had many unmet service needs. Samiullah wanted to start a project for children as they were the most vulnerable to multiple forms of maltreatment. He wanted to set-up a school to provide a wide range of services to children. I liked the idea. Since we had no financial resources to hire a building and staff members, we decided to engage local young people especially young girls in between the ages of 12-16 in setting up a school. These girls were half educated. They served as teachers, counselors, and administrators. We decided to engage girls as they were available. It was difficult to engage boys in the daytime as they were away for work. Since we had no proper place to start the school, we started using empty spaces without a roof in that community.
In a short period of time, we were able to enroll over 400 children and the school became very popular among the masses. Parents started sending their children in the morning and evening to get an education. They were willing to pay a nominal fee. I was surprised to see the level of commitment and leadership shown by the young people of that community. Young girls who started serving as teachers also resumed their education. Later on, they attained graduation and post-graduation degrees. Many of them found good jobs in different companies.
This youth-led school has not only transformed the lives of many children but has also inspired many people and organizations to invest in that community in the field of education and health. This whole experience really changed my life and helped me to find a new vision. Now, I wanted to change the role of young people in the society. I wanted to challenge traditional and outdated ideas pertaining to young people. I wanted everyone to see young people in a different light. I wanted to engage young people as problem solvers. I wanted to create and mobilize the support that young people need to embark upon a changemaking journey. I wanted everyone to honor young people.
By simply honoring young people we can help them to transform themselves from victims to leaders.
I realized there are so many young people who had no opportunity to realize their changemaking potential. They may never know what it is like to use these changemaking abilities to benefit themselves, their families and their communities. I learned that our programs should help to improve the belief system of young people. Our programs should not be based on fear and mistrust. Trust based programs that enable young people to unlock their changemaking potential create a climate of hopefulness, allowing everyone to believe that all things are possible.
I realized that we are making a serious mistake by thinking that young people are ignorant and all we need to do, is to educate them and protect them.
Of course, information and education are important for our kids but it does not uninstall limiting belief systems in youth. I found out that the most effective contraceptive is activated when you improve the belief system of young people and help them see themselves as changemakers and not the victims of circumstances. I decided to develop a new vocabulary for defining young people.
I arrived at three major conclusions from that experience:
1. Every young person is born with changemaking abilities
2. It takes only one person or experience to become a changemaker
3. When young people begin their changemaking journey they rewrite their belief system.
This experience set me up for the rest of my life to bring a paradigm shift in the field of youth development from seeing young people as a problem to seeing young people as a solution, from seeing young people as passive beneficiaries to seeing young people as shapers of the society and from seeing young people as future leaders to seeing young people as changemakers now.
I resigned from my job and decided to embark upon a new and unchartered journey. I realized that the time is right to make a major leap forward. I formally launched the first-ever ‘Youth as a Solution, not as a Problem’ movement in Pakistan in 2002.