For almost a decade, Professor of Practical Theology Auli Vähäkangas and her colleagues have investigated the marginalisation of Finnish, Norwegian and South African youth in the multidisciplinary project Youth at the Margins (YOMA), which concluded in the publication of a book entitled Stuck in the margins? Young people and faith-based organisations in South African and Nordic localities.
“Our research demonstrated that young people are often excluded or ignored,” Vähäkangas says.
The observation inspired scholars of theology, sociology and education to readjust their focus on the reality, experiences and perspectives of young people and to examine at the same time the role of faith-based organisations in the lives of young people labelled as marginalised.
In the YOMA project, differences in the lives of marginalised youth in Finland, Norway and South Africa were compared. According to Vähäkangas, the study has global importance, as it is the first significant international project on the topic, examining the marginalisation of young people from the perspective of faith-based organisations.
“New elements in the study include religion and development, religion and welfare, and connecting them to youth research.”
Focusing on the perspectives and experiences of young people
The circumstances of the young people at risk of marginalisation varied greatly. In Finland and Norway, they were assisted by the welfare state, with additional support from social work and youth work by the church, while in South Africa help was provided by faith-based organisations. In South Africa, religious communities were closer to young people, but their situation was worse, as the country’s economy is weak and there are many single parents and their children even in the age group of young adults, the population studied here.
“The skills of young people were not sufficiently utilised in any of the countries. The problem was that there were no young people involved in the planning of the research design,” Vähäkangas notes. “The voice of young people must be heard.”
Vähäkangas and her colleagues investigated the experiences of young people related to the support received from religious communities.
“The young people who belonged to or were close to a particular religious community felt they had received more support. In contrast, the young people who were not religious at all felt that neither they nor their peers received any support for their situation from the communities.”
The results of the study show that young people who have been marginalised more than one way, that is, for example, those at risk of marginalisation due to unemployment and immigration, needed more support in their lives than those struggling with a single challenge.
A boost for African studies at the Faculty of Theology
Traditionally, there has been a great deal of Africa-related collaboration at the Faculty of Theology. According to Professor Vähäkangas, old partnerships are being strengthened and new networks established. For this, the Africa Research Forum for Social Sciences and Humanities AfriStadi on the City Centre Campus provides a solid foundation.
The Faculty’s Africa strategy is based on the Africa programme of the University of Helsinki. Instead of embarking unilaterally on trips to African universities as before, African junior scholars from the continent are now invited to visit the Faculty. The aim is to conduct research with Africans, not for them.
There are several reasons for strengthening research on Africa.
In recent decades, Finland has become increasingly multicultural. African countries have a long history of multicultural and interreligious encounters and conflicts, and any related knowledge and skills gained can benefit Finnish researchers and society. Islam holds a strong position in Africa, and awareness of it must be increased. Furthermore, there is a need in Finland for contextual theology, according to which all theology is tied up with culture, time, language and practice, and the understanding of the concept. In fact, many African theologians and universities have distinguished themselves precisely as developers of contextual theology. Christianity has evolved globally as well, and the number of its adherents is growing markedly in the southern hemisphere, especially in Africa. This also has a bearing on the situation in Europe and Finland.
The Faculty of Theology utilises its own collaboration agreements and those concluded by the University of Helsinki.
The YOMA project, made possible by the Academy of Finland and the National Research Foundation of South Africa, was aimed at promoting interdisciplinary collaboration in questions related to children and adolescents. The project consolidated South African–Nordic networks already established in prior cooperation in the field of religious studies and welfare research.