ISLAMABAD— In Pakistan, thousands of civilians and security force members died in terrorist violence in 2013. Military campaigns and political outreach have made little headway in reducing the toll. But, Pakistani youth are trying to open a dialogue and end the violence, even in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions.
Teenager Malala Yousufzai became the international face of Pakistan's youth this year. Young and determined, she narrowly escaped death after being shot in the head by the Taliban for her outspoken advocacy of education for girls.
In Pakistan, there are many other young people like her, trying to make a difference by forging peace. Even in the country's violent tribal northwest, where guns are commonplace and tribal feuds a way of life, young people are working to resolve conflicts through dialogue.
University student Mohammad Farooq Afridi is one of those youth leaders. He regularly leaves behind his school in the northwest city Peshawar, and drives out to village tribal communities to talk about alternative ways to resolve disputes.
“People have no patience, they don’t listen to the other side," he said. "I am trying to teach them patience and tolerance. People think more about revenge than resolution, even when they know the consequences, and it’s a never-ending cycle of revenge.”
Afridi has created his own organization called Khadim ul Khalq, or Servant of the People, and he receives some funding from international donors to try to help mediate conflicts.
Like Malala, Afridi believes education will bring change.
He says right now, many children do not study because parents say it is not safe to send their children to class. He wants to set up free street-side schools, cricket tournaments, mobile medical units, all staffed by volunteers.
Afridi says he wants to work more on education because the state of education in his area is pathetic for vulnerable children. He says he wants children to have direction so that they avoid unsocial and unhealthy activities, like violence and drugs.
In northwest Pakistan, recruitment by extremist movements is on the rise, fed by social exclusion, weak rule of law, and a battle between the tribal way of life and the state's attempt to exert control, says the U.N. Development Program's Marc Andre Franche.
“One of the aspects that most encouraged me in Pakistan is meeting so many young people that are trying to make a difference, that are trying to change the situation in this country,” he said.
With 56 percent of the country's population under the age of 30, Franche says such youth outreach programs are extremely valuable in bridging gaps in Pakistan
Several non-government groups are training and funding youth peace-makers, bringing them to Islamabad to teach them conflict mediation techniques. Arshad Hamid is one of those students. He says in Hangu, where he is from, violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims is common.
“This sectarian conflict is scaring people, they don’t feel safe going outside, running their businesses, or even just having a social life. They are frightened," he said. "They never know if they are going to go out and die.”
While Hamid's efforts and others are still on a small scale, they are a hopeful sign that Pakistan's next generation is focused on finding new ways to solve old problems.