Skip to main content

Women are leaving Greenland

Women move away and men stay. The pattern can be noted in most rural areas in the Nordic countries. But in Greenland it is a matter of national survival. The gigantic island’s population, which amounts to only about 56 000 people, is expected to shrink over the next few decades.

Foto: Susanne Walström
 Carl och Qannaquaq Jakobsen. 
Foto: Susanne Walström

Disko Bay on Greenland’s west coast is littered with thousands of icebergs. We are about 250 km north of the Arctic Circle in Ilulissat, a town of about 4 500 people. A retired sailor, Karl Lindeman, is sitting on a bench in the sun. He has worked at sea for most of his life and was the first Greenlander to reach the South Pole. For a while, he was married to a woman from Finland. Today he lives alone.
‘I like to go fishing in my boat, or hunt Canada geese somewhere. IIulissat is a great place,’ says Lindeman.
He is sorry so many women are leaving Greenland.
‘We’re not that many people here, so it’s sad to see the young women move away. I wish they would stay. Everything is so expensive in Greenland since the population is so small.’
Qannaquaq Jakobsen, 19, and his father, Carl Jakobsen, also live in Ilulissat. They went seal hunting this morning. Qannaquaq spends a lot of time out on the water with his dad. He has no concrete plans for the future, but says he wants to keep fishing.
‘I’m going to stay here. Right now I’m single, but I don’t think it will be too hard to find a girl.’

Migration patterns linked to gender

Greenland became a Danish colony in the 18th century and was integrated into the so-called Danish Realm in the 1950s. The labour immigration from Denmark took off around this time, when large numbers of primarily men moved to the island to develop and modernise it. Those who returned to Denmark were often accompanied by a Greenlandic woman, and this migration pattern remains to this day. The smaller Greenlandic communities are very much centred around traditionally male-oriented occupations such as hunting and fishing. Vast distances and lack of infrastructure make it difficult to offer all citizens the services they may want. Those who dream of a different life move away. And when people move away to get an education, women in particular tend to never return. Researchers at the Centre for Equality, Diversity and Gender (EDGE) at Aalborg University in Denmark have written a cross-Nordic report on the theme of Nordic sparsely populated areas at the request of the Nordic Council of Ministers.
‘There’s clearly a gender factor in this type of migration. Women and men face different expectations when it comes to education and migration patterns,’ says Stine Thindemann Faber, gender researcher.
According to EDGE’s report, young men generally have a stronger connection to their home region and appreciate the activities offered there. In contrast, women tend to think there are more opportunities for them in the cities.

Expensive and difficult to find housing

Camilla Lennert Kleeman is 28 years old and a student at the university in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. She thinks there are several reasons why woman are leaving Greenland and never return. One is the limited opportunities to get an education.
‘Another reason is that it’s so difficult and expensive to find housing here, and there are long waiting lists for childcare. These are things that make it difficult to return to Greenland with a family.’
She says that it is often easier for people from other countries to find housing and childcare. Students also get special treatment, since the government wants to encourage higher education.
Niviaq Korneliussen, author from Greenland, mentions additional reasons why women move away: everything is expensive and there is a lack of qualified jobs. She says that Greenland must become more attractive to educated women.
‘We need to reduce the costs and create more opportunities for cultural workers. Right now it’s too difficult to find something to do if you have a special interest. For example, I’m having problems finding book readings and events for writers.’

Politicians want to attract mining companies

Martha Lund Olsen, Greenland’s gender equality minister, points out that women have higher levels of education than men in today’s Greenland. An increasing number of women hold leading positions in society. Yet many highly educated women move away due to a lack of qualified jobs.
‘We’re trying to create new job opportunities in Greenland by attracting mining and oil companies, as they could be a good match for our well-educated women.’
She says that foreign investors and new job opportunities also would add important revenue to the state finances, which currently are in deficit. The money is needed for the construction of new homes. Greenland does not have any private real estate developers. Instead, this has been the responsibility of the government over the last 60 years. Building is expensive, not least because building materials like wood products have to be imported. Normal people just don’t have enough money.
‘There is a bad housing shortage for people who would like to move here. Many Greenlanders are on long waiting lists for a place to rent.’

A more tolerant Greenland

Research shows that the women often perceive the gender roles to be more modern in the cities than in the more rural areas. It has not been determined whether this is a reason Greenlandic women are choosing to leave the island. But urban life tends to offers better opportunities to escape the traditional gender norms, which historically have been strongly rooted in Greenlandic society. Men have been hunters and women have been homemakers. The social control has been very strong, and so has the heteronorm. However, this has started to change in recent years. Pride festivals have drawn thousands of people into the streets. In May this year, Greenland’s parliament unanimously passed a gender-neutral marriage law. Nuka Bisgaard, Greenland’s only official transgender person, has arranged several pride festivals in Nuuk. She attributes the popularity of the events to people’s curiosity.

 Asii Chemnitz Narup
 Asii Chemnitz Narup
Foto: Susanne Walström

‘I think people in Greenland want to live modern lives and make room for new things.’
Bisgaard has also toured Greenland’s coastline as a drag queen, to help create a more tolerant Greenland. A documentary about Bisgaard’s life premiered last spring. Many people in Greenland have reacted to the film and Bisgaard’s drag show. Especially men seem eager to share their views.
‘It seems like I have opened some kind of door. My show has shown that people can be different, and that triggers many thoughts,’ says Bisgaard.
Also Nuuk’s mayor, Asii Chemnitz Narup, is engaged in LGBT issues. According to Chemnitz Narup, the LGBT movement is about creating a society where everybody has a place regardless of gender and sexual orientation.
‘We’re right now transitioning from being a fishing community to being a modern society. Those who study abroad and return home have a more global outlook on things. I want Greenlandic society to be tolerant, a place where we can all live together,’ says Chemnitz Narup.

Updated 14 February 2024