What Does Safe Space Means to Young Fellows of Pakistan Business Council?

‘Happy, satisfied workers enhance productivity which is critical for economic growth. This raises a country’s economic profile, improves quality of employment, and creates more employment opportunities.’  According to the UNDP’s  National Human Development Report, 64% of the population of Pakistan is below 30 years. This means 4.5 million new jobs need to be created for the next five years.

The youth in Pakistan faces a number of challenges as political instability, limited spending on education and public works, lack of merit, and social seclusion. This population bulge has a potential to create positive impact if their formative needs for education, employment, health and recreation in safe spaces are met.

Center for Excellence in Responsible Business (CERB), an outreach initiative of the Pakistan Business Council (PBC) celebrated UN World Youth Day with its young and young-at-heart colleagues over a brown bag session to talk about this year’s theme – Safe Spaces for Youth.

What do the youth consider as a safe space?

A safe space is defined as a platform where youth can come together, freely express themselves, engage in activities related to their diverse needs and interests and participate in decision-making process. These spaces (physical and virtual) help youth sharpen their cognitive, emotional and social skills – the necessary life skills.

Our promising young colleagues shared their valuable personal experiences about the importance of safe spaces – virtual and physical, for personal growth, development and future employability. Their voices are penned below:

“Safe Spaces provide ample opportunities to nurture our values. University and any other learning centers can be considered safe spaces. At university, I was able to polish my interpersonal and communication skills that still keep me motivated. I believe universities should focus more on providing exchange programs on different cross cutting themes. Such opportunities expose us to new and exciting possibilities, help us accept and respect diversity and inculcate tolerance.” Muhammad Talal Yahya, Analyst

“Education institutes need to take lead in preparing youth for the future. Our current education system seems to be redundant and does not prepare us for the jobs that exist today or which will in the near future. Career counselling is limited to only few elite schools and professional services are too expensive.” Farheen Baig, Analyst

“Facebook and other forms of social media are preferred spaces for youth to voice their opinions. Though it’s true that social media news lack credibility, but at the same time it has become a helpful space for youth to share their troubles and seek professional help anonymously without feeling stigmatized.” Sara Laiq, Project Manager – Gender Equality 

“Neighborhood and community parks are important places of interaction and help overcome class biases. Big cities in Pakistan have now gated communities, which might be good for security, but are detrimental to inclusivity and social cohesion. In the past, Karachi used to have Fun Land, Safari Park, Hill Park, Hockey and Cricket grounds – physical spaces where people from all walks came for recreation. You hardly find such safe physical spaces now. Interactions at such levels are more meaningful and lasting compared to virtual spaces and can probably, as research, suggests address issues of anxiety, depression, and alienation in youth. If available, they might overtake virtual spaces.” Seema Khurram, Program Manager – Inclusive Development

Talking about the preference of physical and virtual spaces for youth, our friends advocated the need of promoting more physical spaces such as functional libraries, cultural centers where likeminded people could spend time, incubation centers for innovation, sporting facilities and personal development forums.

When asked about virtual spaces, our young colleagues felt that virtual space is a reality and cannot be ignored. Social integration could be facilitated by increasing the penetration of the internet in rural areas and reducing its costs. This, in their opinion, would open multiple venues for the less privileged and empower them.  The youth team agreed that virtual mediums provide anonymous safe spaces for legal, personal and social guidance to youth, which is very necessary, but admitted that personal interactions have deeper and lasting impact.

What about the workplace?

There is a growing global discussion on how the youth have begun transforming workplaces. In World Economic Forum’s Global Shaper’s Annual Survey, five key strategies have been identified to cater to the incoming younger human resource: provide opportunities to contribute to vision and strategy; mentoring and reverse mentoring; accepting failure as a learning experience, self-managed work schedules and the ability to express themselves freely.  When we look at each of the strategies, the common element is employee engagement. Safe spaces can help employee engagement, as forums where grievances are shared and solutions are found, which give employees a feeling of inclusion and appreciation.

The National Human Development Report identifies the need of basic facilities such as ‘clean toilets or separate changing rooms can be crucial for comfort at work’.  In more refined workspaces – the cafeteria, gymnasium, gaming area, recreational and sitting areas act as safe spaces by encouraging engagement. These provide opportunities for employees to play sports, meditate, screen movies, and organize short mentoring sessions. Many workspaces have hired sports trainers for reducing stress and keeping employees healthy.

With the advent of technology, the virtual safe spaces have become an important medium for engagement. Helplines which provide support are important with respect to mental health and whistleblowing. The mere presence of such facilities increases the confidence of the employee.  More recently, as many work locations are globally connected, engagement portals have become an important method of employee engagement, providing learning and development tools, updates on codes of conduct and team success stories which lead to both healthy competition and motivation. Virtual safe space is a medium which the youth of today is increasingly more connected to and comfortable with – is an important tool to keep the youth engaged.

90% of the youth lives in developing countries. They face tough challenges of unemployment (13.1 percent, or more than 71 million unemployed youth) and poor physical, social, and emotional health. The National Human Development Report highlights ‘employment is necessary for economic returns, but non-economic returns are essential for human development which in turn produces conditions that enhance economic productivity’. For this it is essential for youth to have opportunities for quality work, and safe spaces can provide the engagement the youth need to experience the freedom of choice and opportunities to enable a full and productive life.