Building child rights-based anti-racist competencies in the Finnish social field

Laura Holmi, Sylvia Hakari (2024)
Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism (DIPA)

BLOG: Finland is becoming increasingly diverse. But is the Finnish social field equipped to meet children of diverse backgrounds?



Blogpost by: Laura Holmi, M. Soc. Science, Senior Lecturer, Licensed Social Worker, Head of the Degree Programme in Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, School of Wellbeing in Helsinki, Finland and Sylvia Hakari, MA Ed., Senior Lecturer in Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, School of Wellbeing in Helsinki, Finland.

Photo: Sylvia Hakari (on the left) and Laura Holmi (on the right).

Diversity is increasing all around the world. Most countries report that their country has become more diverse in the past 20 years and this trend is continuing.[i] Immigration to wealthier Western countries, like Scandinavian countries, has been a post-war phenomenon. Immigration rates have been somewhat lower in Finland compared to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway but have increased significantly in the last few years.[ii] This means that the number of children with diverse backgrounds is also increasing. Diversity and racism are not limited to questions of immigration. Still, the increasing immigration actualises the need to address these issues, especially in social welfare. We argue that measures supporting diversity and inclusion are needed

Structural and hidden racist practices are not easy to notice, especially if you are representative of the majority or not familiar with racism as a phenomenon. This blog highlights some current issues for minority children’s rights in Finland and discusses the need to raise awareness and build anti-racist approaches in social service education.

Migrant background as a risk factor

Racism and feelings of otherness challenge children’s rights and well-being. As social work professionals, lecturers, and educators, we have an obligation to raise awareness among those who work with children and to educate them so that children and everyone can be themselves, free of discrimination. From an early age, children become aware of social structures in which people are treated differently.

Social risk factors, such as low education levels and low family income, are more prevalent among children and families with migrant backgrounds and they are also at higher risk of exclusion from public services than the majority population.[i] These are consequences of structural racism in our society. Studies show that in schools, children who speak fluent Finnish may have been directed to teaching groups for pupils with Finnish as a second language based merely on their looks or their family’s immigrant background. Moreover, in student counselling, pupils with immigrant backgrounds may be directed towards a career in the care sector or other lower-level studies, irrespective of their interests.[ii]

According to a survey by the Finnish Non-Discrimination Ombudsman (2020), children with foreign backgrounds experience racism and discrimination from early childhood.[iii] In everyday life, children with foreign backgrounds face more violence and sexual harassment compared to their peers. They also have more experiences of being bullied at school or in their free time because of their skin colour, language, or national background.[iv] 73 per cent of minority families with children say that their child faces racism and discrimination in Finland.[v]

How can we become activists of change?

In the Bachelor of Social Services degree programme of Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, research-based changes to the curriculum have recently been implemented.  The latest changes to the 2023 curriculum aim to educate our students, both the social counsellors and the early childhood education professionals, to become more qualified to work with diverse client groups and understand how to promote an antiracist approach in their work. Part of the social pedagogical professional ethos is to emancipate clients and help them to reach equality. There is an urgent need for this approach in social work, to enhance the equality and equity of people in vulnerable positions in our society.

Antiracist education is a human right, and it helps to prevent radical marginalisation and ideological extremism[i].

Raising awareness and adopting anti-racist approaches

According to the UN Children’s Fund[i] “All children everywhere have the right to a full childhood with dignity, respect and worth. The right to a childhood free from discrimination and exclusion is crucial to child well-being and accessing the services needed to survive and thrive… Systemic and institutional racism and discrimination prevent children from accessing their rights and puts them at risk of a lifetime of deprivation.” This underlines the need for measures that support diversity and inclusion for children.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is an important agreement in this respect. All Nordic countries have ratified the CRC and, by doing so, promised to protect and respect children’s rights. Legislation and ethical principles are crucial for social welfare students and professionals working with children and families in social services, early childhood education settings or in school or other environments. Especially, Article 2 about Non-Discrimination is key in the context of antiracist education and practice:

“…Every child has a right to be treated without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status…And state parties need to ensure these rights…”[i]

From an educational perspective, we find it important to promote knowledge and understanding of racism from a child’s perspective and on how to work with an antiracist approach. As lecturers, we challenge ourselves and our students to reflect upon how we think about others, and how we can become aware of our own privileges and prejudices. To secure children’s rights, we have to build adults’ understanding of racism and abilities to reflect upon their own role in racist or prejudiced practices or attitudes.

One tool to raise awareness about one’s own social position is to use educational models for reflection. One such model is the Wheel of Privilege and Power in Finland (Familia ry); see Figure 1. Even though the wheel does not focus exclusively on children with foreign backgrounds, it can be used to reflect upon these children’s situations and our position as professionals. It is also important to remember that children and families with foreign backgrounds are remarkably diverse. They are diverse in many ways, for example, by reasons of immigration, country of birth, ethnicity, language, and culture.[i]

Figure 1. Wheel of Privilege and Power in Finland, Familia ry. Inspired by Sylvia Duckworth’s illustrations of power privilege wheel. Used with permission.

As a last point, it is important to note that a resource-based social pedagogical perspective is crucial when meeting all individuals. As lecturers and professionals working in the social and educational field, we should focus on opportunities and resources and not only on tackling the challenges individuals face. We are encountering people full of potential to participate in our society. But only if we give them equal opportunities and work through dialogical partnerships are they enabled to participate on equal grounds[i]. Professionals in the social work field should learn to look at the children’s world through the lenses of all children, including minority children. We need positive discrimination to achieve the goals of UN children’s rights. Only when we as professionals can see the structures of privileges and the disadvantages in our society can we build frameworks and direct resources for children in need.

[i] McConnell, (2023) Igniting social pedagogy through learning and teaching partnerships in a higher education context. IJSP. 2023. Vol. 12(1). DOI: 10.14324/111.444.ijsp.2023.v12.x.009

Please see also Tools for speaking about racism and discrimination: guide for families and professionals

Please see also  Exploring Anti-racism in Early Childhood Education, Teacher Identity and Classroom Practices

[i] Ahtiainen, H, Mäki N, Määttä, S, Saukkonen, P ja Yijälä, A (2020) Ulkomaalaistaustaisten lasten ja nuorten hyvinvointi Helsingissä. Tutkimuksia 2020:5. Helsingin kaupunki, kaupunginkanslia kaupunkitutkimus ja -tilastot

[i] United Nations Children’s Fund, Rights denied: The impact of discrimination on children, UNICEF, New York, November 2022

[i] Kuusisto, A (2018) How and Why Education Counters Ideological Extremism in Finland. International Migration Review 53(1):019791831876904. DOI: 10.1177/0197918318769047

[i] Suoniemi, I (2013), “Köyhyyden dynamiikka Suomessa 1995–2008”, Eläketurvakeskuksen tutkimuksia 01/2013, Palkansaajien tutkimuslaitoksen tutkimuksia 114.

[ii] Eid, M, & Castaneda, A (2023) Ulkomaalaistaustaisen nuorten hyvinvointi tutkimusten ja tilastojen valossa. Valtion nuorisoneuvoston julkaisuja 73. ISSN ISSN 2489-9461 (painettu) ISSN 2489-947X (verkkojulkaisu) ; Ahtiainen, H, Mäki N, Määttä, S, Saukkonen, P ja Yijälä, A (2020) Ulkomaalaistaustaisten lasten ja nuorten hyvinvointi Helsingissä. Tutkimuksia 2020:5. Helsingin kaupunki, kaupunginkanslia kaupunkitutkimus ja -tilastot ; Jahnukainen, M, Kalalahti, M & Kivirauma, J. 2019, (toim.), Oma paikka haussa: Maahanmuuttotaustaiset nuoret ja koulutus. Gaudeamus, Helsinki. 2019.

[iii] Yhdenvertaisuusvaltuutettu, Selvitys Afrikkalaistaustaisten henkilöiden kokemasta syrjinnästä (2020)

[iv] Ikonen, R & Halme N (2018). Lasten ja nuorten kokema seksuaalinen häirintä ja väkivalta. Kouluterveyskyselyn 2017 tuloksia. Tutkimuksesta tiiviisti 6, maaliskuu 2018. Terveyden ja hyvinvoinnin laitos, Helsinki ; Halme N, Kuusio H, Kanste, O, Rajala R, Klemetti R, Seppänen J. (2017). Ulkomaista syntyperää olevien nuorten hyvinvointi Kouluterveyskyselyssä vuonna 2017. Tutkimuksesta tiiviisti 26, syyskuu 2017. Terveyden ja hyvinvoinnin laitos, Helsinki

[v] Familia ry (2020) Kahden kulttuurin parien ja perheiden kokema rasismi ja syrjintä suomessa

[i] Pew Research Center, April 2019, “A Changing World: Global Views on Diversity, Gender Equality, Family Life and the Importance of Religion”

[ii] Ethnic minorities in the Nordic countries, 2019,, Aarhus University ; Statistics Finland, Population and society, Migration 2022