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Inequality in the Kingdom of Denmark

Title: Julie. Press photo from Rethinking Nordic Colonialism

Why are Danish citizens not covered by one and the same equal rights legislation? This question was posed by the UN in August 2006 when the Kingdom of Denmark, comprising Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, was reviewed by the UN General Assembly women’s convention (also known as CEDAW, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women). The Kingdom of Denmark was put under the microscope and question marks were put against the substantial legislative differences between Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
“But do we have to be exactly alike?” asks Professor dr. jur. Hanne Petersen.
The Minister of Gender Equality does not wish to comment on the issue given that policies pertaining to equality come under home rule legislation.

  Julie Edel Hardenberg, 2003

KVINFO/7.2.2007 Even though the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Denmark comprise a Kingdom and all have ratified the UN CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women), the three countries have different equal rights policies – to the great surprise of the CEDAW committee which reviewed Denmark in August 2006 to see if it lives up to the expectations of the Convention. Following discussions with a Danish delegation in New York, the CEDAW committee tabled a number of points to be rectified before 2008, including the disparity in the rights accorded Danish citizens living in the three countries.

That there is a difference has by now become apparent to most people in Denmark. In the autumn of 2006 the Danish media were full of reports about an ongoing debate in the Faroe Islands regarding the rights of homosexuals – homosexuality not being covered by Faroese anti-discrimination legislation. There has previously been an intense debate as to why women in the Faroe Islands do not have access to abortion on demand when it is a right in Denmark. But in these and many other areas, home rule legislation takes precedence and decisions are therefore made by a majority vote in the Lagting (Faroese parliament), and thus by the Faroe Islands themselves. The same is true of Greenland.

The law
The answer to the CEDAW committee’s question about differential treatment within Denmark, the Faroe Islands and Greenland is therefore in principle quite straightforward: the law. When the Faroe Islands gained home rule in 1948 and Greenland in 1979, Denmark yielded national competences in many areas. In fact, Danish laws and regulations for the whole Kingdom are only valid in matters of family law, currency policy, citizenship and the judicial system. All other areas, including equality policies, are administered by the countries themselves.

Laws and regulations are one thing, but the reciprocal relationship of dependence and independence between the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Denmark is of course open to discussion and inquiry when it comes to the issue of equal opportunities.

Denmark has no reason to be smug
Inequality within the Kingdom of Denmark was but one part of the Danish equal opportunities approach to be scrutinised by the CEDAW committee. Denmark was enjoined to make improvements in quite a few areas before the next review in 2008 – for example: the lack of equal pay; the poor representation of women in leading posts in businesses, academic institutions and boards of directors; the issues around trafficking of women to work in the sex trade.

But even though Denmark is not the perfect role model, surely we have a duty to exert a positive influence in the areas where we do actually fulfil UN stipulations? Professor dr. jur. Hanne Petersen, University of Copenhagen, sees no unequivocal answer to this question:

- I had worked on issues relating to women and equality for twenty years, but when I went to Greenland my outlook was really challenged. I just couldn’t get things to fall into place. I was of the impression that when politicians are mostly male and there is a clear-cut division of labour between the sexes, then women would by definition be oppressed. But there has always been a mutual dependency and respect between the sexes in Greenland.

Hanne Petersen’s research topics include legal culture and legal pluralism and she has worked with Greenlandic legal issues for over 10 years. From 1995-1999 she was professor of legal science and legal sociology at the University of Greenland, Ilisimatusarfik, and from 2001-2006 she held a professorship at the University of Copenhagen with special regards to the sociology of law in Greenland. She continues to follow the situation in Greenland, but is now also involved in projects relating to the Faroe Islands.

Different yardsticks apply
- An awful lot of progress is being made in Greenland, and quickly too, since women really entered the labour market, says Hanne Petersen.

- There have been strong and capable female mayors and members of the local parliament for a long time. Representation is increasing, as it is in the rest of the western political landscape, and similarly we are seeing more women in academia. But here in Denmark we know so very, very little about Greenland and the Faroe Islands. And as time passes since home rule was introduced, our interest and knowledge are becoming steadily even less.

- There also seems to be a tendency to generalise and measure the Faroe Islands and Greenland by the same yardstick rather than acknowledge their very real differences. The Greenlanders are a nomadic people. The women are the most mobile; they are used to moving for reasons of marriage, they are cultural bridge builders and interpreters. The Faroe Islands, on the other hand, is originally a fishing and farming community characterised by a strong, and in part fundamentalist, religious morality – in turn there is very little murder, suicide or theft, says Hanne Petersen.

Greenland, however, has a lot of problems with domestic violence against women, suicide and alcoholism. In Hanne Petersen’s opinion, industrialisation has not been easy for Greenlandic men. The women are more adaptable – having been accustomed to life at home in the small settlements, the new opportunities offered by the labour market have led to an enormous expansion of their horizons. Moreover, Greenlandic men have been faced with increased competition on the marriage market from the many Danish men who have arrived to work as, for example, well-paid carpenters, plumbers etc., or academics with high social status.

- The resulting surplus of men is one of the reasons that it is not only lower social strata that have experienced and continue to experience problems with alcohol and domestic violence, albeit alcohol consumption has dropped dramatically and is today at the same level as in Denmark, says Hanne Petersen, and continues:

- Having said that, from the Danish side there is a widespread tendency, when attention finally turns to Greenland, to reiterate the same pessimistic stories of murder, suicide and misery. At the moment I am supervising a female PhD student researching violence against women in Inuit families. And Greenlanders are frequently saddened when this seems to be the only aspect of their country that is of any interest. The PhD student, who is herself from Greenland, encountered criticism and resentment of the project, particularly at first, because people felt they were being put on display. Of course these issues must be studied – they are part of life in Greenland too, but there is so much else.

Denmark – a conglomerate state
Hanne Petersen, who has recently published the book Retspluralisme i praksis [Legal Pluralism in Practice], sees Denmark as a “conglomerate state” because it is composed of three countries – of which only one is a member of the EU.

- A conglomerate state is a complex arrangement. Intervention is not an option, and yet we are bound up with one another. Self-government is a decentralisation of competence, and this has to be respected but also weighed up. Denmark cannot step in, enact laws and regulate in the territory because that would run counter to values of self-determination and principles of home rule. And it is true that, for example, homosexuals, single parents and divorcees have a difficult time in the Faroe Islands; it is a conservative society with big gender differences, but in respect of the home rule agreement Denmark cannot intervene, explains the professor.

But surely home rule does not prevent Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands from being able to collaborate on initiatives in support of equal rights. We must surely acknowledge the CEDAW committee’s surprise that, for example, abortion is prohibited in the one country and not in the other?

- We might suppose that know-how could be swapped at meetings between the three member countries and that issues of equality would be on the agenda, but that wagging fingers are passé. The EU has, for example, the principle of ‘unity and diversity’ emphasising that community and differences are possible at one and the same time. Malta, for example, does not sanction divorce even though the country is subject to the equality directives.

Is it not easy for culture to assume the role of an excuse for not doing enough about equal opportunities – for example, in Greenland and the Faroe Islands?

- Yes, it can indeed, but how is that balanced against the politically legitimate demand for legal autonomy? And that, among other things, is what legal pluralism and legal culture are about. Inequalities are a condition of a conglomerate state such as Denmark, just as they are within the EU – in Spain, for example, rules and laws concerning abortion are different from those current in Denmark. I don’t think it’s particularly positive that abortion on demand is not available in the Faroe Islands, but I also think that when looking from the outside it is not necessarily possible to know what is appropriate, because the actual circumstances might prove to be nothing like those one has pictured, says Hanne Petersen.

Won’t we all end up living in glass houses while no one is required or dares to throw the stones that might need to be thrown a little way in order to mark out some form of higher common denominator in relation to equal opportunities?

- These are difficult and uncomfortable matters. There are indeed many ambiguous issues where it seems – to me, at least – increasingly difficult to take a categorical stand. I also probably react generally to the ‘Manichean’ politics we are seeing a lot of in the contemporary world, with the sharp division between ‘us’ as the good and ‘the others’ as the evil. We shouldn’t, of course, allow ourselves to be immobilised by an overload of information and then abstain totally from taking a stand. But do we know where we should throw our stones when we throw them out into the world? Might we not also contribute by examining where there is a need to use our small and our big stones to build orientation beacons at this perplexing time – on home ground too? asks Hanne Petersen.

To New York at two days’ notice
When we contacted the lawyer Turid Debes Hentze, former chair of the Faroese equal opportunities commission, the conversation was marked by a complexity which Hanne Petersen had also addressed.

- We have a good collaboration with Scandinavia in general, but when it comes to Denmark in particular we are by and large never involved in the actual work of equal opportunities. We are not seen as being independent with our own surveys, statistics etc. We’re always part of Denmark – if we’re mentioned at all, that is, says Turid Debes Hentze.

- Nor do we receive direct information when something has been planned. For example, we were given two days’ notice that we had to go to CEDAW in New York [the August 2006 review, ed.] – and that makes it all very odd. We would like to be an independent country, and then it would be somewhat easier to participate. Just as Denmark wouldn’t like it if Sweden intervened in Danish affairs, we aren’t keen on Denmark intervening in Faroese affairs.

The issue of homosexual rights in the Faroe Islands has recently been much discussed. So you don’t think Denmark has any part to play in that debate?

- Many other countries have shared their view on the matter with us, and that’s been good, but there is a tendency for Denmark only to intervene when the more delicate matters such as this are being discussed.

- Our equal rights legislation is satisfactory; the dilemma is how to make it effective. But you have difficulties with these things in Denmark too. We have equal representation of men and women on councils and boards, but where political representation is concerned the situation is very bad. In short, we have far too few women in politics, explains the former chair of the Faroese equal opportunities commission.

Unlike Denmark and Greenland, the Faroe Islands has imposed a 50% quota system for public sector councils and boards, but only 3 out of 32 politicians in the Lagting are currently women, and that is the highest number ever. The Landsstyr, which is comparable with the Danish government, has no female members.

Coaching in target areas
Equal opportunities policy in the Faroe Islands is handled by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, which comprises 15 members including consultants, and which is active in many different areas. Kitty May Ellesen, head of section in the Ministry of Trade and Industry, represented the Faroe Islands in the Danish delegation to CEDAW in New York. She says:

- We don’t have much time to work on equal opportunities. We don’t collaborate with Denmark on equality issues, we manage it ourselves but we haven’t got many resources. It would be useful to have some coaching in various target areas. There is a huge difference between the Faroes and Denmark when it comes to issues such as, for example, abortion and homosexual rights. But that’s because the decision-makers here are all men.”

What do you think about CEDAW putting the spotlight on the Faroe Islands and Greenland?

- It’s positive, and I think it’s good to receive a critique of equal rights because here the political system consists entirely of men, and they only legislate with men in mind – not women.

A fortnight in the Lagting
Until the autumn of 2006, Kitty May Ellesen was in charge of equal opportunities policy in the Faroe Islands. She has, among other initiatives, organised campaigns to encourage more women to enter politics – but with no success. On the contrary, she was met with derisive laughter from the male politicians when she proposed that they should each relinquish their seat in the Lagting for a fortnight in favour of a woman. The aim of the proposal was to show that women are perfectly capable of making political decisions, and to accustom the population to seeing women in political life.

Why is it so difficult to get Faroese women to enter politics?
- Possibly because they don’t want to stand as parliamentary candidates. And then there’s no tradition for it. The equal opportunities commission has also instigated a campaign to encourage women to vote for women, but that didn’t succeed either.

When we ask what the Faroes intends to do following the CEDAW report, we are referred to ministerial secretary Winnie Zachariassen who is now in charge of equal opportunity initiatives.

- We have appointed a committee that will work towards getting more women involved in political activities. We had actually appointed it before the CEDAW report, but we’ll keep it going until 2008. Apart from that, we haven’t started up anything new following the report.

Nor are there any plans to take measures in any areas beyond political representation. In response to the question of the extent to which the Faroe Islands will use the CEDAW recommendations or extend collaboration with Denmark in further work with equal rights, Winnie Zachariassen says:

- Well, it’s very difficult because we have to go in and question traditions and culture, and out in the small settlements that’s very difficult. But of course CEDAW empowers our words. And that can but make for improvements. Denmark is more advanced in a number of areas, so an exchange of empirical know-how would be welcome. At the same time, Denmark has some problems, trafficking for example, of which we have no experience. So dialogue, rather than directives, is always going to be helpful, says Winnie Zachariassen.

Do we need new tools?
When we return to Professor Hanne Petersen, we ask her about her attitude to CEDAW and its aim to establish fundamental norms and rules for gender equality around the globe:

- CEDAW is excellent, but I think we are going to have to use some more imaginative tools – some pluralistic models that make it possible to say that not all women have to live according to one template, which just happens to be ours.

- At the same time, there can be no doubt that the UN’s measures are of enormous significance. For African women, for example, globalisation has been of great importance – being able to say to politicians at home: “Look what the others are saying and doing – we ought to be doing that too.” It’s excellent and healthy that the Faroes and Greenland are also given a thorough going-over. Challenge and debate are good, of mutual benefit and with mutual respect. It’s enormously important, but I don’t believe in a fixed model.

Hanne Pedersen goes on to explain that Denmark’s relationship with Greenland and the Faroe Islands is characterised by lack of insight and interest because involvement with them does not lead to money, prestige or career. Greenland and the Faroes, on the other hand, experience a more respectful professional environment and equality of status within the Nordic community shared with Iceland, Finland and Norway. But why does Denmark continue to maintain political ties with the self-governing dependencies of Greenland and the Faroe Islands?

- I think the chief reason Denmark holds onto Greenland is its significance in terms of foreign-policy: that it makes us a large country. As regards the Faroe Islands, there are possibly explanations to be gleaned from a slightly longer historical perspective. During the Second World War, Denmark was occupied by the Germans, the Faroe Islands by the British, Iceland and Greenland by the US, and towards the end of the war Bornholm was occupied by the Russians. It is said that the US showed considerable interest in buying Greenland. Iceland broke away in 1944, and the plebiscite of 1946 resulted in a minimal majority in favour of independence, which the Danish government refused to accept. All in all, the unity of the Kingdom was under a great strain.

- It might also have a degree of foreign-policy relevance today. A Faroese breakaway would lead to a lot of problems. Not just for Denmark and the Faroe Islands, but also for the international community. Many nations would be less than pleased if their self-governing areas picked up on similar ideas, and then there has been a general fear of territorial withdrawal, seceding, which has not become any less after developments in the Balkans over the last decade, says Hanne Petersen.

You mentioned new tools and models. What might that involve in terms of equal rights?
- We must learn to see ourselves in a global context. I remember from my schooldays the map of Denmark, with Greenland shown in a little corner. That’s how Denmark sees herself now – in the role of tiny little player in, for example, the EU. And this manifests itself in anxiety and uncertainty, because we have yet to learn how to navigate in the global context.

- I think it’s quite possible to enter a dialogue and share experiences, but it will probably have to be in contexts other than the ‘traditional’, ‘national’ and ‘political’ ones. We need inspiring discussion that cuts across these concepts. And we should apply a critical appraisal to ourselves and consider our gender ideals: are they, in the long run, worth building upon. It’s healthy to challenge our sets of values so that we don’t get stuck in our ways – and this applies to the gender debate as well. 

No plans for discussions with the responsible Minister
But the relevant authorities in Denmark are not prepared to have any kind of discussion with the Faroe Islands and Greenland on issues concerning equal rights. Presented with a series of questions, which allowed for the legal basis of the home rule regulations, the Minister for Social Affairs and Gender Equality, Eva Kjer Hansen, has chosen to reply via her press secretary:

- The Minister will not comment on this issue as it comes under home rule regulations. She therefore has no authority in this matter and cannot become involved.

But the questions make allowances for home rule regulations and are about, among other issues, initiatives to forge dialogue between the three countries.

- This is not the case at present and there are no plans for such.

Does that mean that from the Danish political side there is no involvement in any kind of collaboration with Greenland and the Faroe Islands on issues of gender equality – be it support, exchange of information, discussion or contact?

- There is not, nor are there any plans for such.

Translation: Gaye Kynoch




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