UNDP and IDEAS are conducting focus group discussions and town hall meetings with the youth across Pakistan to listen to their views on education, employment and social engagement. Part of the discussion also revolves around their political views, the parties they support, and the reasons for their political alignments. These discussions reveal that predominantly, the youth has incomplete information of politics and derives their knowledge from only a few sources such as discussions in the house amongst the elders, conversations with peers in college or at work and the news headlines.
These sources are even more limited for girls, especially in rural areas who may be either actively denied access to television or are only given snippets of information that mould their choices in a certain fashion. During an FGD in a rural area, we found that girls are not even allowed to watch television. Their access to news is limited and there is no avenue for political engagement. Surprisingly, many of them own a mobile phone but use it primarily for talking to friends or for listening to music, not for reading news. The men in the community are more aware of politics and also have the opportunity to engage with the numberdar who comes to the village occasionally. The women, on the other hand, have no access to political figures and their connection to the political world is moderated by the men in the community.
During the discussion, it became evident that the girls have clear ideas of what change is required in their communities and can articulate their needs very passionately. They expressed the need for more training centers, free of cost education system, and more security in their villages. But they have no platform where they can present their demands. They also have little idea about what each political party is offering them since they have limited access to information. Due to their constricted mobility and limited education, they are unaware of how they can push for these changes in their community.
It is almost as if the women in rural areas are invisible. They are told to vote according to the wishes of the men in the house even though they have the ability to make these choices on their own. They know about politics only through the men. It is the discussions that take place amongst the men that colours their views on politics. Their information is asymmetric, incomplete and their ability to access politics and push their demands is severely restricted.
This contrasted with the girls in the madrassah who expressed absolute clarity on who they want to vote for. They unanimously said that they would vote for Jamaat-e-Islami. Primarily, their concerns are the increasing baihayai (shamelessness/vulgarity) in the society. In their view, this restricts their ability to work since their parents don’t want them to go out in a world that does not separate men and women and does not respect pardah. They expressed hope that Jamaat-e-Islami would bring Islamic system to Pakistan. Their idea of the Islamic system would allow women to work, play sports, and engage actively in social life while staying within the religious limits. When asked about their access to information however, it was clear that they did not read newspaper regularly and only a few of them watched news on television. How are they making their choice then? It is not driven by belief alone, since they link their choice to a clear personal stake i.e. that they can work and engage in the social life while following Islam. But it not based on complete information either.
The last two groups showed varying degrees of apathy to politics. During our FGD with College girls, it was clear that they are mostly apathetic to politics and the few who showed interested were making choices based on limited information. Some girls had strong views but their knowledge was based on the discussions at home and snippets of news. Their demands were for more security, increased access to education and better job opportunities. The last group, the sex workers, had complete apathy to politics. They found the politicians to have failed at delivering any reprieve for poverty and problems of their community.
We still have many areas to explore and many women yet to talk to. This is the beginning of a series of discussions with young men and women across Pakistan. The question worth exploring is what determines political choices amongst this cohort. Are they fully informed? What are their priorities? Are they clear about they can demand for from the politicians? This is what we hope to answer in depth from our further discussions.