Bargad: The Meeting Place For Youth Development in Pakistan

Helping youth development in Pakistan, Bargad are an organisation driving change. Grese Sermaxhaj sat down with them to find out more.

Bargad is a youth-led and youth-focused organisation working for youth development in Pakistan.

Based in Lahore, one of Pakistan’s wealthiest cities, Bargad fulfils its mission through its three main pillars: Economic Empowerment, Social Empowerment and Political Empowerment.

With the help of Sabiha Shaheen, Bargad Executive Director, in this piece, we will dig more into the organisation’s activities and contribution since its early days back in 1997.

Bargad aims to create socially responsible, politically aware, forward looking and gender sensitive youth that respects freedom, equality, and rule of law. 

The organisation also engages to end violence against women, and Shaheen dedicates one part of the interview to their Say No to Child Brides Campaign

The value of this campaign gets even more significant once we recall that except in one province, everywhere else in Pakistan, the legal age of marriage for girls is still 16 and for boys it is 18.

In the local language, Bargad means Banyan tree, which has been used traditionally as a shadowed tree where people, especially women would sit and talk while doing their daily chores. 

Banyan also symbolises the tree of wisdom.

Read on for the story of the first organisation that entered campuses and made spaces for civil society causes. Before that, only political parties operated there.


Starting from Scratch and Shining 

Shaheen, who toured 25 Pakistani universities across the country to lecture on the issue and youth radicalisation, starts her conversation with Youth Time by looking back at almost 25 years of Bargad’s work.

“When Bargad started, it was a group of students from different colleges and universities of Lahore particularly the Punjab University which is the largest and oldest university in Pakistan,” she says.

The group felt that there were no spaces for youth. 

Bargad The Meeting Place For Youth Development in Pakistan 1
Bargad Executive Director: Sabiha Shaheen

“They were instruments for various things but for their own they did not have the freedom on campuses to go beyond academics and communities were hugely led by the elders.”

“They needed interactions to learn from each other and do activities. In absence of such opportunities, the chances of conflict are increased; so we were essentially talking about non-academic programming and extracurricular activities on campuses.”

In those days, there was a lot of violence on campuses. 

“Organised student groups were always trying to physically capture the campuses. There were clashes which also turned violent, and even arms were used. 

“This situation was particularly shocking for the girls. They were less in numbers (now they outnumber boys in Pakistani universities).”

Also, the social pressure limited women’s access to higher education.

Fortunately, now things have improved in Pakistan. 

“There is also a space of social media available to youth. Girls’ mobility is on the rise as well. Bargad has trained young minds in both skill and theme based competencies and is effectively using social media and regularly runs campaigns.”, she further explains.


Say No to Child Brides Campaign 

Say No to Child Brides is among the most powerful Bargad’s campaigns, which took form in 2015. 

Shaheen, in this part of the interview, elaborates more on the Pakistan’s situation regarding the child marriage. 

“Each province of Pakistan has the mandate to devise its own laws regarding child marriage. Sindh is the only province to have set the legal age of marriage at 18 years of age for girls and boys.”, she says.

Everywhere else in Pakistan, the legal age of marriage for girls is still 16, whereas for boys it is 18. 

In 2015, Bargad drafted a legal amendment to the law “Child Marriage Restraint Act” (1929), increasing the legal age of marriage for girls. 

However, this legal amendment was not adopted by the government. 

“Since then Bargad has been campaigning for this as its part of all the Youth Policies in each province and is also in violation of girls’ sexual and reproductive health.”

Four years later, in 2019, the campaign took the name of “Say No to Child Brides”.

“Through this campaign, Bargad reached out for mass support for girls’ rights through social media, policy consultations with parliamentarians, politicians and government officials.”

Besides, on the Youtube Channel called “Pakistan Youth Tube (PYT)”, they shared actual stories of child marriages through multiple re-enactments. 

Further, Shaheen goes on, a petition was started by a young volunteer and presented to the Governor of Punjab with over 20,000 signatures gathered online. 

“Bargad also involved youth in the conversation by holding orientation sessions in universities to inform them about the law and the proposed amendment. They were then involved in organizing multiple social action projects in their universities to influence change.”

So far, Bargad has garnered support from parliamentarians across all parties for the raise of legal age and is still striving for the approval from the cabinet for the legal amendment to take place. 


Youth-led Organisations Improving Communities in Pakistan

Bargad started as a youth-led initiative, but now it has transformed into a youth development organisation. 

Speaking from her experience, Shaheen shares her say on the importance of youth-led organisation in the betterment of the society.

“It is encouraging that many youth organisations and networks are now working and trying to create spaces for the youth. 

“We believe that our communities’ health is determined by the number and activism of organisations,” she asserts.

Despite this mushrooming of youth organisations, according to a youth mapping study conducted at the end 2011 by Bargad, there were only 486 youth focused or led organizations functioning in Punjab province and Islamabad Capital Territory. 

“The total population of this region is around 120 million. It is appeasing that public and policy circles, also because of the efforts of organisations like Bargad, have realized demographic changes and youth bulge in Pakistan. 

“Erstwhile youth was a marginal area of policy in Pakistan,” she explains.

Bargad provided technical help to the governments of the four provinces and two regions to plan their youth policies. 

“Because of that, investment in youth affairs has increased.”, she believes.


Quotas as Opportunities for Youth and Women

Thanks to their advocacy, now it is mandatory that three provinces allocate four percent of their annual budgets to youth affairs and sports. 

“There is a quota introduced for youth councillors in local government, which was not there. 

“Likewise, women’s employment quota at the entry level has been introduced and there are also initiatives for religious minority youth in employment and education.,” Sheheen adds.

There is also a huge electoral contest among mainstream political parties to win over youth votes. 

“We have increased the youth presence within the communities and are positively affecting public practices.”

Concluding this interview in a cheerful tone, we recall that so far, the Bargad Volunteer Network (BVN) – only youth led, has over 3000 volunteers across all four provinces and eighty districts in Pakistan. 

They have executed 1200 small social action projects only during the last five years. Bargad also hosts project-based and summer internships.

Already liking the genuine spirit of youth activism of Bargad?

Then, remember that Bargad membership is open for Pakistan’s youth between 15-29 years provided they subscribe to its vision, mission and values. 

Follow Bargad’s work on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Development in Pakistan is happening everywhere: 

Promoting the Right to a Childhood: An interview with Madeeha Ansari

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