The family – a site of safety or oppression?

2010-11-01 Women in the western part of the Nordic region depend heavily on family ties and romantic relationships as well as on the fact that the welfare system regards them as family members rather than individuals.

Despite the fact that the West Nordic countries are regrettably rarely included in comparative studies on Nordic welfare, and that it is difficult to achieve funding for West Nordic research exclusively, it is a well-known issue that the welfare system in the West Nordic region in many ways differs from that of the rest of the Nordic region. For instance there is a difference in the way that the question of gender equality and social security has been handled in the West Nordic region as opposed to the other Nordic countries. In certain contexts the West Nordic countries are intimately linked when it comes to welfare and living conditions. In other contexts, however, the countries have faced different challenges, and they have applied different solutions to the welfare issue.

In the northern peripheral regions, women have gone away more so than men. This is true not only for the West Nordic countries, but also for the peripheries of e.g. Norway, Sweden and Finland. Various sources have pointed out that especially young women who leave the peripheral areas often find it difficult to move back. The labour market is characterised as masculine, the educational opportunities are limited, the debate on gender equality is insufficiently developed, and the welfare offers accommodating the needs of women and families are scarce. As a consequence, the share of women in the West Nordic countries is lower than the share of men, whereas it is the other way around in the other Nordic countries. This is true especially for Greenland and the Faroe Islands as well as for some parts of Iceland.

Responsibility for household and extended family

Women’s workforce participation in the West Nordic region is more frequent than in the other Nordic countries. At the same time, however, the gender-based unequal pay seems to be more pronounced. Women in the western part of the Nordic region have more children, but generally public welfare has had less to offer parents than in the eastern region. Besides working more and having more children, West Nordic women also assume the daily responsibility for household and family more often than their East Nordic counterparts. This is also the case for Icelandic women despite the 9 months parental leave in Iceland, of which three are reserved for fathers, and Iceland ranking highest on the “Gender Gap Index” 2009.

This became evident in e.g. the book Velfærd, arbejde og helse i Vestnorden (Welfare, work and health in the West Nordic region). Appearing in 2007, it features West Nordic researchers’ writing on welfare from different perspectives. However, more concrete facts about the West Nordic region are necessary, such as figures on gender ratio, and we also need more thorough analyses of e.g. the distribution of power and how women and men in the West Nordic region define their quality of life, their life context.

Taking the above as its point of departure, Nordisk Embedsmandskomité for ligestilling (the Nordic Committee of Senior Officials for Gender Equality) launched the project Kvinder og velfærd i Vestnorden (Women and welfare in the West Nordic region). The project analyses official information and features focus group interviews with five differently compiled groups of women in each country. Each group contains five women on average. All in all we have interviewed 75 women.

The five focus groups have been compiled based on the following criteria:

• Married/co-habitating women with children aged less than 12 years

• Women with no children – other marital status

• Single women with children

• Women educated abroad

• Women with no vocational training

The interviews involved interview forms with questions regarding the following issues:

• Why do women move away – or why do they fail to move back?

• What does a good life look like to contemporary young women in the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Iceland? What do the women interviewed identify as necessary in order to achieve a good life in these countries? How do they define the concept of quality of life?

We asked questions about the public sector – the welfare system. How can the public sector support younger women and families in making a good life for themselves in the respective countries? What public rights/services most aptly support the balancing between work life and family life? What public rights are the most important ones to achieve gender equality? What do the women interviewed identify as prerequisites for the promotion of gender equality and equal pay in the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Iceland? And the interviewed women defined gender equality.

Reliance on the extended family

The interviews with the 75 West Nordic women show both differences and similarities. They are characterised by a reliance on the extended family until now prevalent in the West Nordic countries when it comes to various welfare solutions and political questions pertaining to family issues. Intimate relations to family and friends turn out to be a leitmotif in the interviews, and importantly, the women point to these relations as capable of establishing a comfortable and desired feeling of safety. But the interviews also reveal a paradox: the women feel that the so-called familism also oppresses a lot of women because it ties them to old gender roles. They carry the main responsibility for the family – household, children, extended family, in-laws etc.

The interviews display an interesting paradox between the women’s entitlement to independence and security, between women’s liberation and wanting to support the extended family, between wanting to live in the country where one has one’s roots; in a country that one loves – but on the other hand desiring to live in a country allowing more anonymity and opportunity to be “oneself” in a different way than at home. We see certain paradoxes suggesting that the best aspects of living in the West Nordic region are also what the women find most oppressive. As a consequence, unfortunately a great deal of the gender equality struggle does not take place in public, but predominantly within the extended family, between four walls and not least perhaps only within the women themselves.

Many formal systems are weak in the West Nordic region, and public institutions do not always meet the women’s demands and interests as far as political questions pertaining to the family are concerned. This means that women as individuals depend heavily on family ties and romantic relationships as well as on the fact that the welfare system regards them as family members rather than individuals. This problematics is most conspicuous for single mothers in the Faroe Islands and Greenland. In brief, they have to rely on financial and social support from the family.

Control over one’s own time

Women in all of the West Nordic countries express the opinion that women move in order to improve their educational opportunities, get internships and jobs – and also to stand on their own two feet. All the West Nordic women believe that the right to parental leave of absence when a child is sick should be extended. They also agreed that an extended parental leave for men and women is the most important factor to achieve gender equality.

Lack of power over one’s own time was a very dominant discourse among all the West Nordic groups of women. The explanations were structural as well as subjective. Among the structural reasons long hours, low pay and high birth rate were mentioned. Among the subjective reasons they mentioned inequality between the sexes in work life as well as in the home and the hyping of paid labour.

The West Nordic women’s descriptions of a more efficient and sustained welfare system turned out to be quite identical. They emphasised that the welfare system ought to even out men and women’s job opportunities as well as provide equal opportunity on a more general level. The women pointed out that gender-based unequal pay created a general inequality, determined the division of labour in the home and perpetuated traditional gender stereotypes.

The discussion on social control caused by small populations and compromised anonymity was also a dominant discourse. This social control makes it difficult to break free from e.g. traditional gender roles. But it is an interesting paradox in this discourse because the women also find safety in living in the West Nordic region precisely because of the small populations – people in the West Nordic countries stick up for each other in a way that they would not in places with millions of inhabitants.

Visions of the future

I hope that my book Kvinder og velfærd i Vestnorden (Women and welfare in the West Nordic region), published in all the West Nordic languages and Danish, will become an important contribution to a better understanding of welfare and gender equality in the West Nordic region as well as potential beneficial solutions. The project should be seen as a mapping out of welfare and gender equality in the contemporary West Nordic countries and the challenges they face. But not least, it should also be seen as an important contribution to the development of future welfare and gender equality and a platform of continued research and action within the field of welfare and gender. The scope of this small project did not allow us to interview men. The next step will thus be to interview men on welfare and gender equality in the same way that we did women.

Av: Guðbjörg Linda Rafnsdóttir is Professor of Sociology at the University of Iceland and editor of the report Kvinder og velfærd i Vestnorden (Women and welfare in the West Nordic region).


The report Kvinder og velfærd i Vestnorden (Women and welfare in the West Nordic region) has been published in four languages: Danish, Faroese, Greenlandic and Icelandic. The report is available for download at the Nordic Council of Ministers’ website

Project participants count Karin Jóhanna L. Knudsen, researcher at the Center for Local and Regional Development, Faroe University, MarieKathrine Poppel, lecturer at the Dept. of Social Work at Ilisimatusarfik/University of Greenland in Nuuk, Ingibjörg Lilja Ómarsdóttir, project manager at the National Institute of Social Research, University of Iceland, and Guðbjörg Linda Rafnsdóttir, Professor of Sociology at the University of Iceland. The latter is also the editor.

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