Students as peace builders

There is a saying that everything is possible when you are young. Even though you cannot accomplish everything during your life span, when you are young all options are open and nothing has been settled. Except if it has. Especially in conflict areas there is a large number of youth for whom the future looks predestined to be a vicious circle of lack of education, unemployment and poverty. Young people who grow up in areas of conflicts hold a key position in peace processes. In the UN resolution Youth, peace and security, young people are recognised as key peace actors. There can be no lasting peace if young people are not committed to it.

On 23 January, I participated in a seminar  on the conflict in Syria. The seminar was organised by development cooperation organisations. The event did not have peace agreements as a goal, but rather to identify ways of supporting the inclusion of Syrian NGOs and grass roots actors in stabilising the region. In connection with the seminar, a joint statement by these organisations was published, which also SYL signed. Listening to the speakers and panellists my head filled with thoughts about what Finnish students might have to offer for such a process. Which are our best competencies?

One of the images people have of the student movement is the cliché of it being a movement of nay-sayers: an unconstructive group that shoots down all proposed reforms without even discussing them. This image goes hand in hand with the general misconception that students are lazy hedonists, all the time demanding more money for travelling and shopping.

At times I have despaired, when it feels like students and the student movement is bashed for being stationary and selfishly clinging to achieved benefits. This is frustrating because, in my opinion, this image is completely without grounds. One in five students suffer from a continuous lack of funds. Many students also use the free time they have after studies and work to do voluntary work promoting issues important to students through different associations.  I claim that among students and in the student movement, there is an unusual number of people who genuinely worry about people and our society. Students are easy to enthuse; they have a genuine will to make the world a better place – if they are only given the opportunity.

The Finnish student movement is an important advocate for accessibility, equality and quality in education, as well as showing the way of peaceful advocacy work. Last week at SYL’s kick off seminar, we talked about how to use the education and social policy as well as international know-how that the student unions possess in future development cooperation work of the university student movement. The participants had great ideas and thoughts on how to develop good governance, democracy, and community also in challenging conditions. The student unions have a lot of knowledge in these fields, and it would be great to promote them also outside Finland. The outcomes of the discussions at the kick off seminar are more than needed, since this year, SYL will completely restructure our development cooperation work due to the cuts to funding that the Government made. We must think hard about how we students could promote the realisation of global responsibility. This year, we will plan new projects, find new partnerships, and ensure that students will continue to grow into active, critical and enlightened citizenship with the help of development cooperation work.

The talk about students not contributing anything positive to society is just empty stereotyping. The young generations have considerable responsibility, both in Finland and abroad, to be engines of development and peace. Without the commitment of young people, we cannot solve global problems. Active development cooperation and peace work is a great opportunity for the student movement in Finland. Additionally, Finland has a past that shows how it is possible for a country mangled by civil war to within a hundred years become the best country in the world. That kind of future history is not something we should deny any country.

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