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The small Faroe Islands have a big problem: young women emigrate by the dozen. Also because of the traditional role model that prevails here.

When Guðrið Guðjónsson looks out of the winter garden of her parents’ house, she sees everything: the colourful wooden houses with the thatched roofs, the green hills on which the sheep graze, and the harbour from which the fishermen set off to work every day. In Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands, everyone knows everyone, the people here are open and warm. Guðrið likes her home. The 19-year-old lives in an idyll that fulfils all Scandinavian clichés. Nevertheless, the high school graduate soon wants to leave here to study in Denmark. To stay in the Faroe Islands is not an option for Guðrið. “I find it almost a bit sad when you stay here,” she says.

“We’re a little isolated here. And old-fashioned.”

Like Guðrið, many young people live in the Faroe Islands, the small archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean. The Faroe Islands have less than 50,000 inhabitants, even in Tórshavn less than 20,000 people live. Whoever wants to discover a big city or study a subject that is not offered at the tiny university of the Faroe Islands, leaves school after school. In hundreds of countries, some more than a thousand kilometres away, to Great Britain, Norway or Denmark. Guðrið cannot study Danish or German in the Faroe Islands, and Denmark attracts more generous state support. But there is another reason for young Faroese women to leave the country: the gender relationship, which many consider antiquated. “We are a bit isolated here,” says Guðrið. “And old-fashioned.

Among young adults there are ten percent more men than women

Between 2012 and 2014 alone, almost 4,500 people left the islands, half of them between 18 and 25 years old. 55 percent of young emigrants are women, 45 percent men – the difference does not sound alarmingly high at first. But women in particular often turn their backs on the Faroe Islands forever. As a result, there are already about 1,600 more men than women living on the archipelago today. Among young adults there are ten percent more men than women.

The Faroe Islands are an autonomous part of the Danish Kingdom. But while other Scandinavian countries are regarded as prime examples of equality, the islands are lagging behind. “We live in a male-dominated society here,” explains Erika Hayfield. She is a professor of sociology at the University of the Faroe Islands in Tórshavn. Many families have classic gender roles, she explains: Although most women work, they are often stuck in part-time jobs – also because many jobs in typical women’s jobs in childcare or nursing are advertised from the outset as part-time jobs.

Guðrið’s mother, who gave birth to six other children in addition to her, was also a housewife and worked part-time. In the meantime she has been trained as a nurse at the university in Tórshavn. In order not to start off with a career at the age of 40, many young women find a future in the more equal neighbouring countries more promising.

The Faroese are a pious people

Unlike in Denmark, for example, religiosity and the church are omnipresent. The only cinema in the capital, for example, refused to show the film “The Da Vinci Code” because its owners rejected its critical content. The majority of the Faroese belong to the Evangelical Lutheran state church. In kindergartens and schools, in the media and in politics, religion plays an important role, says Guðrið. “A somewhat too important one. Especially if you’re an atheist like me.”

“People here are afraid of diversity.”

Guðrið is also otherwise disturbed by the political and social climate of his homeland. While Denmark was the first country in the world to make registered partnerships for gays and lesbians possible in 1989, homosexuals in the Faroe Islands do not have it easy. “People here are afraid of diversity,” says Guðrið. Marriage for all does not exist yet, gay acquaintances of Guðrið have even been bullied. “Young people,” she says, “and that in this day and age.”

Since 2006 an anti-discrimination law has been in force in the Faroe Islands to protect gays and lesbians from unequal treatment. But a registered civil partnership or marriage for all does not exist yet. (Photo: Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images)

The emigration wave can already be seen in the population structure

Erika Hayfield sits at her desk and points to the screen of her computer. A population pyramid can be seen on it, next to it the age structure of the Faroe Islands, a bulbous construct with a narrow tip, the currently few old ones, and an astonishingly broad underground, the younger Faroe Islands. But this will not remain so. Where the young adults over 20 have their place, the otherwise bulbous age structure shows an all too narrow waist. The emigrants are missing.

Therefore, an overageing of the society threatens also on the Faroes. Unlike in Germany, the demographic change is not due to the fact that women have so few children. The average is 2.6, a top figure in Europe. “There won’t be enough women left in the future to have these children,” says Hayfield. If nothing changes, the population will fall to under 38,000 in the next 35 years. The male surplus will continue to rise.

Return? Perhaps. But maybe not

Just a few minutes’ walk from Erika Hayfield’s office, the choir has already begun singing in the community hall of the capital. About a dozen women, most of them over the age of 50, stand around a piano and sing Faroese hymns. Jona Á Váli Olsen is late, she quickly throws her jacket on a chair, reaches for her notes and joins in. She stands out with her bright soprano voice – with the chucks on her feet anyway. Since August she only supports the choir during the holidays.

“For me there is simply no professional perspective here.”

But Jona is not one of those who criticize inequality of opportunity and gender roles in the Faroe Islands. “I don’t think that you have a disadvantage as a woman in the Faroe Islands,” she says, “only for me there is simply no professional perspective here. To open her own hostel at some point, where young holidaymakers can find cheap accommodation, is how she imagines her future in the Faroe Islands. Nevertheless, it is open to Jona whether she will return. “Maybe I will find a great job somewhere else or start a family. Jona is 23 years old and has left her home. Since graduating from high school a few years ago she has travelled half the world, today she expresses herself in perfect English. Since the winter semester of 2015 she has been studying in Bournemouth, a holiday resort on the south coast of England. It was pragmatic reasons that led her there: “I simply can’t study hotel management in the Faroe Islands,” says Jona.

The University of the Faroe Islands does not even offer ten subjects of study

The new government, which was elected in September 2015, wants to provide incentives for women like Jona or Guðrið to return at some point – or stay at home. The IT sector is to be expanded and new jobs created, and the start-up scene in the country is to be promoted. In addition, the coalition under the leadership of the Social Democrats wants to strengthen the role of the University of the Faroe Islands. The university does not currently offer ten courses of study, but there will be more in the future. At least that is what Eyðgunn Samuelsen, the new Minister of Social Affairs, promises. Measures that could also keep some young men on the islands. Something is to change on the Faroe Islands not only economically but also socially: The Social Democrats have announced their support for marriage for all. Samuelsen promises women an “active equality policy”. She does not say exactly what this means. After all, she is one of four ministers in the new cabinet. Before there was only one.

In the centre of Tórshavn, in sight of the parliament building, stands a bronze sculpture. It is called “Maður og kona”, man and woman. He has one hand casually in his trouser pocket, the other one around the woman’s shoulder. His gaze is rigid and cold. She looks sad, lost in thought, looking into emptiness. The women on the Faroe Islands, on the other hand, act. They look where they see perspectives. And they are often still elsewhere.