Pakistan: changing perceptions

The group attend the Farmer Convention for World Food Day, held at the National Agriculture Research Centre in Islamabad, 29 October 2013Last month we took a group of eight young people of Pakistani heritage on a field trip to Pakistan, so they could learn first-hand about the causes of poverty and conflict in the country. The group, aged 15-19 are from Brierfield and Nelson in East Lancashire and from Derby.

The trip was organised as part of our 'Promoting positive voices in diaspora communities' programme, funded by the European Commission. The young people had a hectic schedule, visiting projects and holding meetings in Lahore, Gujrat, Jhelum and Islamabad, as well as fitting in a visit to McDonald’s – apparently there aren’t any halal McDonald’s in the UK!

By far the most dominant issue raised during our visit was the negative perception western nations have of Pakistan. Most of the meetings and informal conversations we had with officials and young people during our visit countered the view of the west (portrayed in the western media) that Pakistan is a very dangerous place to live and a hotbed of Islamist extremism. The fact that we had visited as a group from the UK was welcomed by people because it was a small opportunity to redress that view – “tell everyone when you get back that it’s not as dangerous as what the west think”, was a plea we heard a lot. Although the warnings by western governments are cautious, perceptions matter and such things give the (false) impression of a population living in constant danger.

The group outside the Pakistan Monument, IslamabadAnother major topic of discussion was the western perception that women and girls are discriminated against under Islam. As one person we spoke to put it: “The west think that we are governed by the Taliban – women all wear veils covering their face, cannot go out without a male’s permission and cannot enjoy themselves.” However we found that Pakistan mainly subscribes to a moderate Islam. We visited Gujrat University, where over 60% of the students are female and wear different styles of dress, not just traditional and not necessarily covering their arms.

A perception in the west exacerbated by the shooting of Malala is that girls are prevented from gaining an education in Pakistan. We visited schools and observed the normality of girls being educated along with boys. However, many people we spoke to within the education sector stressed that Pakistan still has a long way to go in terms of providing young people with opportunities to gain an education. Literacy levels are low and even when a child does gain an education from the mix of state and private schools, only a fraction of them will gain a university education. Speaking with some of the educational professionals, it was interesting that their concern was actually for boys, who are less likely to go on to university than girls, “preferring” to get employment via entering the family businesses or moving abroad.

There is also the concern that many young people leave the country to attend university and then don’t return, or attend university in Pakistan and then leave, adding to the brain drain. Those we spoke to believe graduates should come back, but perhaps it is unrealistic to expect people to return if quite simply the opportunities are not there. As one person put it, those who leave can have a career and a higher income, and sometimes enjoy the greater liberalism of countries like the UK.

The group meet the principle of a school in Jhelum, Punjab provinceWe met with the governor of Punjab, who talked about how poverty affects many Pakistani people. He mentioned the need to improve the provision of clean water and said that most of his own staff do not even have access to unpolluted water. We observed the circumstances that many people face and were told of the even greater levels of poverty in rural areas. Pakistan’s population is estimated to grow from 180 million to 205 million by 2050 – one of the largest predicted growths in the world. This presents severe challenges for the country, especially in terms of the provision of food, given that over 60 million Pakistani’s live below the food poverty line.

It was an interesting and enlightening trip. The young people worked incredibly hard, often holding reflective discussions on the days’ activities long into the evening and providing real insight, passion and enthusiasm. Combined with the support of the small but dedicated team of youth workers who accompanied the group (our partners) as well as Alert’s Pakistani programme, it was a successful trip that none of us will forget and has enthused the young people with ideas for building on relationships made with the other young people they met.

You can watch the BBC's coverage of the trip in Urdu here.

Find out more about our work with diaspora communities in the UK here.