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A soldier during a crisis management military exercise at the military grounds of Santahamina in Helsinki. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

On Monday, new recruits from all over Finland started their conscription with the Finnish Defense Forces. On the same day, Finland’s conscripts’ union (Varusmiesliitto), which oversees military recruitment, announced its position on changes to the current conscription model.

Traditionally, military service in Finland has been obligatory for men and voluntary for women. Recently, however, this marked gender-based disparity sparked a public debate about whether or not young women should be obliged to serve in the military as well. 

Last month, Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen proposed that women could perform compulsory civil service, but said that he is against military conscription for women.

A large percentage of young people under 25 do not have what we call ‘the defense will.’

Matias Pajula, chairman of the conscripts' union.

A woman conscript swearing her military oath at the Senate Square in Helsinki on February 22, 2014. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

While a majority of Finns seem to oppose female conscription, young people are more open to the idea. This likely goes hand in hand with a decrease of enthusiasm for military service in young men, many of whom see the conscription model as unfair.

In light of this, the conscripts’ union has proposed a voluntary system, which would only become obligatory if there were not enough volunteers in a given year. This obligation would then extend to both men and women.

We spoke with Matias Pajula, chairman of the conscripts’ union, who explained the proposed changes and the reasons for them. “Presently, we are training around 25,000 people per year from a particular age group. We propose to keep that number roughly the same, except that the recruits would be chosen on the basis of preference to serve, as well as mental and physical capability, rather than on the basis of gender.”

Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

According to Pajula, “the biggest problem is that a large percentage of young people under 25 do not have what we call ‘the defense will’ and they are dissatisfied with the conscription scheme. But the Finnish military system is based on precisely this willingness of young people to help their country, and we want to maintain this support for the system, not just now, but in 50 years time as well.”

The union also proposes that screenings be carried out to assess the suitability and motivation of recruits well ahead of them being called to serve. In these screenings, they would undergo various tests, although simply expressing an unwillingness to serve might not be enough for an exemption. Nonetheless, Pajula says conscientious objections would be considered and “held in high regard”.

“The military would still have the power to call people to service, should they not get enough volunteers. They would select from a population of suitable and motivated individuals, who would be assessed in screenings.” Pajula added that “if service was voluntary, I might not have volunteered. But if they then asked me to come because I was physically and mentally capable, I would have gone.”