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Women Leave Rural Areas in Search of Gender Equality

Old-fashioned traditions and lack of opportunities make young women leave the countryside. The pattern can be observed all across the Nordic region, but is particularly evident in the Faroe Islands. We need to turn the trend around, says Erika Hayfield, researcher from the Faroe Islands.

Faroe Islands. Photo: Colourbox
Photo: Colourbox

Many young people in the Faroe Islands leave their home islands as soon as they get out of school. They want to try a different lifestyle and a different environment, and many of them never return. This is especially true for women, and a general lack of gender equality seems to be one reason for their decision to move away.
‘Men seem to see more opportunities in the Faroe Islands,’ says Erika Hayfield, migration researcher at the University of the Faroe Islands.
She has interviewed individuals who have chosen to leave the islands and has found that women in particular feel that the region offers them very limited opportunities. This makes them eager to move away to study, work or try life in the city. Some interviewees also described the Faroese culture and way of life as old fashioned.
‘The message I got from the interviews was that people are seeking a more open and tolerant society,’ she says.

Welfare in jeapoardy when young people move

When young people move away, the proportion of old people goes up. This is problematic, says Hayfield.
‘Many Nordic communities are characterised by aging populations, but not to the extent we will see in the Faroe Islands in the future. If the trend continues, we won’t be able to maintain the welfare system in 40 years,’ she says.

In the Faroe Islands, there is broad awareness at the political level about the problems that arise when young people move away. However, the gender equality perspective is not getting much attention, says Hayfield.
‘Politicians like to say that more jobs will solve the problem, but it isn’t that easy,’ she says and explains that the types of jobs offered and how businesses recruit employees also matter.
‘I can understand that young women don’t see a future in small communities with a strong focus on traditionally male-dominated activities such as hunting, fishing and industrial work. It makes the culture very male centred,’ she says, but adds that it is possible to change both which sectors are focused on and how different sectors are perceived.
‘I believe that the fishing industry could draw young and well-educated women back to the Faroe Islands, but only if there’s a willingness in the industry and among politicians,’ she says.

Gender equality politics must be updated if young women are to stay

Hayfield feels that many people don’t want to open their eyes to the problem of losing women. If the politicians want to stimulate population growth, they have to invest in gender equality, she believes. Kristín Ástgeirsdóttir, director of the Centre for Gender Equality in Iceland, agrees. Ástgeirsdóttir is coordinating the gender equality conference that the Nordic Council of Ministers is hosting in Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands, on 27-28 May. The conference will focus on gender equality in working life and politics in the Faroe Islands, with themes such as part-time work, rural labour markets and gender equality in family life. People from all across the Nordic region will attend the conference and Ástgeirsdóttir is expecting many interesting discussions.
‘I’m looking forward to hearing about all the experiences and ideas. The conference is important – there’s a great need for a thorough discussion about gender equality in the Faroe Islands,’ she says.

Photo: Colourbox
 Photo: Colourbox

Ástgeirsdóttir and Hayfield both agree that the Faroe Islands has fallen behind its Nordic neighbours when it comes to gender equality policy. Symptoms of this include the low frequency of men going on parental leave and large share of women working part time. In 2010, 19 percent of working men and 66 percent of working women had a part time employment (less than 35 hours per week) according to figures from the Hagstova database. According to statistics for parental leave, men used 6 percent of the days in 2013, as reported by the authority Barsilsskipanin.
Hayfield points out that the Faroe Islands’ special political and geographical conditions imply equally special challenges in the gender equality work.
‘Many men work in the Norwegian fishing industry and spend long periods away from home. It’s hard to make a relationship gender equal if your partner is not even home,’ she says.
She also explains that the Faroese welfare system has a stronger focus on the family than in the Scandinavian countries, and that Faroese women therefore tend to face heavier care responsibilities. The family is supposed to serve as a social safety net – a view that for example may lead to old people being denied elderly care if their families are deemed able to provide care.
‘There are cases were old people have been moved down on the waiting list if they have a daughter. This practice is heavily criticised by women’s groups,’ says Hayfield.
She also notes that the Faroese welfare system and family policy affect same-sex couples in particular, since they are unable to get married or register a domestic partnership under the current legislation. She is unsure how common it is that homo- and bisexuals choose to move away from the islands, but knows that some of them feel forced to settle down elsewhere.
‘I have talked to couples who have registered partnership in Denmark and don’t want to move back since their status would not be recognised here,’ she says.

Both the geographical and political conditions in the Faroe Islands are different than elsewhere in the Nordic region, but the pattern of women moving to more populated areas is not unique. In fact, this trend has been noticed in rural areas all across the Nordic region in recent years.
‘We see it everywhere. Men stay and women move to the cities,’ says Ástgeirsdóttir.
She sees a link between women’s migration away from the countryside and the overrepresentation of women in higher education, and her observation gains support from Erika Hayfield’s interviews. Most of her interviewees stated education as their reason for leaving the Faroe Islands. It seems like men have an easier time or are more willing to find a job that doesn’t require higher education,’ says Kristín Ástgeirsdóttir.
‘Rural women have traditionally worked at home, but today they want something different and their communities have not been able to cater to their needs.’

Updated 26 September 2020