PESHAWAR -- The Pakistani government has launched a scholarship programme aimed at helping impoverished college students complete their studies and steer them away from extremists seeking to recruit vulnerable youth.
Prime Minister Imran Khan on November 4 announced the Ehsaas Undergraduate Scholarship Programme for youth in need. Students awarded scholarships will receive to as much as Rs. 50,000 ($705) annually for a total of Rs. 200,000 ($2,820) over a four-year period.
The programme, described as the largest undergraduate scholarship programme ever launched in Pakistan, will provide at least 50,000 scholarships annually to deserving students in the first year and 200,000 over four years, GeoTV reported.
Dr. Sania Nishtar, the prime minister's special assistant on social protection and poverty alleviation, said at the ceremony that scholarships will be awarded in programmes including agriculture, arts and humanities, business education, engineering, medical studies, physical sciences as well as social sciences, SAMAA TV reported.
The Ehsaas Scholarship, in addition to going toward tuition fees, will also include a stipend to help students meet living expenses, she added.
Fifty percent of the scholarships will be given to female students, while 2% of the scholarships will be reserved for disabled students, Nishtar said.
Peshawar-based educationist Muhammad Salim said the initiative is a big step toward promoting higher education in the country and helping youth avoid extremists.
"It is an established fact that the reason that most of the young people have joined militants is because they lacked money to go to schools and colleges and were used by terrorists for acts of sabotage," he said.
The government project "will provide an opportunity for students to get a scholarship and continue their studies instead of being used by militants," said Salim.
The radicalisation of youth has been the mainstay of militants groups seeking "to carry forward their agendas of frightening people," he added.
"Most of the suicide bombers happen to be youngsters who have left school and college," Salim said. "They were trained and brainwashed by militant outfits. The initiative is very encouraging because it promises better a future for our youth."
Peshawar-based security analyst and educationist Khadim Hussain said that the scholarship plan could play a key role helping defeat the goal of extremists in radicalising vulnerable youth.
"The militant groups are notorious for the recruitment of young boys who are brainwashed and then sent to... spread fear among masses through suicide and bomb attacks," he said. "It will give a boost to the government’s efforts to eliminate terrorism and pave the way for durable peace in the country."
Terrorist outfits have always tried to capitalise on the poverty, ignorance and illiteracy of the young people, and such scholarships will thwart their efforts to find out-of-school youth and recruit them for their violent activities, Hussain added.
"The youth will not join terrorists if they have education and jobs. Therefore, it is a right step toward eliminating terrorism on a permanent basis," he said.
Dreams of education
Shamim Akhtar, a first-year student at Jinnah College for Women at the University of Peshawar, said she appreciates the initiative and will apply for the scholarship.
"My parents are too poor to pay for my expenses," she said. "My uncle is giving me money for my education, but now I feel that I would be able to get the merit-based scholarship owing to my academic record."
The programme will fulfill her dream of obtaining higher education, Akhtar said.
Muhammad Rafiq, an undergraduate student at the Islamia College University Peshawar, also said he is ecstatic about the scholarship plan.
"This will enable me and others to complete our education more easily," he said. "So far, my father has taken loans from relatives to pay for my college expenses. Our area has been one of the worst hit by terrorism and young people desperately require support to get an education."
Rafiq, who hails from North Waziristan District, said the scholarship amount is sizeable and that it will allow recipients to not only pay for their tuition fees but also meet their day-to-day needs.
Ahmad Waleed, a professor at the University of Peshawar, noted that the programme not only covers high-performing students, but physically disabled people as well -- an indication that the government believes in inclusive policies for the development of the country.
He agreed that the initiative will help steer youths away from the potential recruitment by extremists who prey on vulnerable citizens.
"The programme aims to bring women and the poor population to the mainstream and this will lead to a strong nation that will not be challenged by terrorists," Waleed said.
Namal College, a private university established by Prime Minister Khan in Mianwali, has been providing full and partial scholarships for 90% of its students, and Waleed expects Imran will adopt the same approach in public sector schools and colleges as well.
"We need to equip youth with skills so that they can get jobs and change the economic situation of their families and defeat terrorism," he said.