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GREENLAND

Greenlanders speak out about forced contraception

Thousands of young Greenland Inuit were the victim of a 1960s policy to limit the birth rate in the Arctic territory, which was no longer a colony at the time but still under Danish control.

Greenlanders speak out about forced contraception
Britta Mortensen speaks during an AFP interview on June 27th, 2022 in Ilulissat, Greenland. From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, 4,500 young Inuit women and girls from Greenland were subjected to a policy aimed at limiting the birth rate in the Arctic territory, which was still under the authority of Copenhagen. Photo: Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

“I had to spread my legs, and when it was put in it hurt terribly,” said Britta Mortensen, who was 15 she when was forced to have a coil, or intrauterine device (IUD), fitted.

Like thousands of young Greenland Inuit, Mortensen was the victim of a policy to limit the birth rate in the Arctic territory, which was still under Danish control at the time.

According to an investigation by Denmark’s public broadcaster DR, some 4,500 women were subjected to the procedure.

It was 1974 and Mortensen had just left her family for the first time. 

There was no high school in the fishing village of Ilulissat where she lived on the island’s western edge, so continuing her studies in Denmark was an opportunity for her.

“I went… to a boarding school and there the headmistress told me: ‘You have to get an IUD.’ I said no,” she recalled, standing in front of the white house where she was born.

The headmistress said: “‘Yes, you will get an IUD, even if you say no,'” Mortensen added, the hurt still clear.

Her parents, who were thousands of miles away, were never asked for consent and never informed.

One autumn day, the teenager found herself in front of a doctor ready to have the contraceptive device inserted.

“It was an IUD for women who had already had children, not for young girls the age I was,” the now 63-year-old told AFP.

After the “violation”, Mortensen took refuge in silence, unaware that her fate was shared by other Greenlandic girls in her boarding school in Jutland in western Denmark. 

“I was ashamed. I haven’t told anyone about it until now.”

But Mortensen is now taking part in a debate about what about happened — albeit timidly and mostly on Facebook, where a group set up by a psychologist who was also a victim, has brought together more than 70 women.

It’s a “mutual support group as co-sisters so no one feels alone, especially with the reactivation in the trauma that was repressed for many years,” said its creator Naja Lyberth.

It is particularly trying for women who had not been able to have children, she said.

Many women were unaware that they were wearing a contraceptive device, she added, only finding out when Greenlandic gynaecologists started discovering them.

“Typically, it was placed during an abortion, without women being informed about it,” Lyberth told AFP.

Historian Søren Rud said the Danish campaign in the late 1960s was part of a lingering colonial mentality that continued even after formal decolonisation in 1953.

This attitude “was marked by ideas of the Greenlander’s lack of cultural competences. In contrast to many forms of birth control, IUD did not require any effort from the Greenlandic women in order to be effective,” said the associate professor at the University of Copenhagen.

The women’s testimonies come at a time when Denmark and Greenland, which became an autonomous territory in 2009, are re-examining their past relationship. 

In March, Denmark apologised and paid compensation to six Inuit who were taken from their families in the 1950s to take part in an experiment to build a Danish-speaking elite in the Arctic territory.

Britta Mortensen believes that women who were forced to use contraception also deserve an apology and should also be compensated. 

“They should compensate for the harm done to us, the many girls who were forced to wear the IUD,” she said.

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2022 DANISH ELECTION

Why Faroe Islands and Greenland could decide Danish election result

Denmark’s election on November 1st could conceivably be settled by four parliamentary seats allocated to representatives from Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

Why Faroe Islands and Greenland could decide Danish election result

Under Denmark’s constitution, four seats in parliament or “North Atlantic mandates” as they are termed in Danish politics are awarded to parties from the Faroe Islands and Greenland.

Both are autonomous territories within of the Kingdom of Denmark and have their own parliaments. Before they became autonomous in the 20th century, they were governed from Copenhagen – hence the constitutional need for their representation in parliament.

Because the parliament has a total of 179 seats, 90 are required for a party (in practice, a faction of allied parties under the ‘bloc’ system) to win a majority and form government.

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Usually, the four North Atlantic seats are not required to take one side or the other over the threshold of 90 seats needed to win an election.

For example, the 2019 election saw four red bloc parties secure 91 seats and therefore the parliamentary majority needed to back an agreement that installed Mette Frederiksen as Prime Minister.

But if the red and blue blocs both fall slightly short of 90 seats, the North Atlantic seats – and the parties that win them in the Faroes and Greenland – can come into play.

The most recent poll produces this exact situation because it gives the ‘red bloc’ 87 seats with 71 seats to the opposing ‘blue bloc’.

The centrist Moderate party, which has not aligned itself to either side, under former Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen would get 17 seats if the poll was born out in the election itself.

If the Moderates decided to work with the blue bloc, each side would still be short of 90 seats at 87 and 88 for the red and blue sides respectively.

This would mean the North Atlantic parties would need to join an agreement to put a government in place.

The situation is unusual but has occurred before – most recently at the 1998 election, which was famously decided by 176 votes on the Faroe Islands.

Five of the last six elections in Denmark have seen parties aligned with the Danish ‘red’ bloc take three of the four North Atlantic mandates, with the exception being 2015, when all four went to red parties.

Parties from the Faroe Islands and Greenland tend to back the bloc that aligns most closely with their own politics.

“The Faroe Islands and Denmark have separate economies. The burdens I as a member of parliament can place on Danish voters would have no impact on my voters. And the Danish voters cannot replace me. They do not have access to my place at Christiansborg,” Sjúrður Skaale, a current member of the Danish parliament with the Faroese Social Democratic Party, wrote in a column in media Altinget in January this year.

Skaale said he would prefer North Atlantic seats not to be decisive, despite Social Democratic parties from the Faroe Islands potentially being able to tip the balance in favour of a Social Democratic Danish government in a knife edge election.

“Personally, I hope the [current] government can continue. But it would be completely wrong – verging on undemocratic – if it happened on the basis outlined,” he wrote.

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