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Family ties make Faroese women Europe's top baby makers

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Family ties make Faroese women Europe's top baby makers
Suduroy, the southernmost of the Faroe Islands. photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix
09:38 CEST+02:00
The Faroe Islands has had the highest birth rate in Europe for decades, with around 2.5 children per woman, according to World Bank figures.

In the rest of Europe, women usually give birth to less than two children on average, its data shows.

Gunnhild Helmsdal's mailbox has six names printed on it and will soon add a seventh: having a big family is nothing unusual in the Faroe Islands where women have the most babies in Europe despite also having the highest rate of employment.

When Helmsdal, 41, gives birth to her fourth child a few weeks from now her family will grow to seven members, including her husband and his daughter from a previous union.

"Children are the greatest gift of all, I think. I've always wanted to have several kids," Helmsdal, who is a doctor, tells AFP at her home.

"Large families are maybe a bit chaotic but, in the end, happy families," she says, with a smile while her two-year-old son Brandur seeks her attention. His name means "sword" or "fire" in the Old Norse language.

Her two neighbours, who live across the street in this residential area of Hoyvik, near the capital Torshavn, have six and seven children respectively.

The archipelago, an economically prosperous and autonomous Danish territory in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, has long suffered from a deficit in women as many have emigrated since World War II and not returned.

The trend has changed in the last five years as the job market, which was historically heavily focused on fishing, has diversified.

Faroese society, traditionally dominated by conservative values, has also become more liberal -- same-sex marriage was legalised on July 1st, 2017.

When asked about the reason for its remarkable fertility rate, locals often jokingly say: "There's nothing else to do here."

However, the throwaway remark does not reflect the reality: participation in the Faroese labour force is the highest in Europe, especially among women, according to Hans Pauli Strøm, a sociologist at Statistics Faroe Islands.

Eighty-three percent of the Faroese hold a job, compared to 65 percent in the European Union -- of which the territory is not a member -- and 82 percent of Faroese women work, compared to 59 percent in the bloc.

More than half of Faroese women work part-time, Strom said, adding that "it's not because they're struggling to find a full-time job but a preference and a life choice".

Local authorities highlight favourable social measures to partly explain the phenomenon: a 46-week parental leave, which authorities want to extend to one year, abundant and affordable kindergartens and tax allowances, among others.

Incidentally, taxes on seven-seat vehicles were reduced a few years ago.

Faroese family policies may seem generous compared to the rest of Europe, but they are not very different from the measures in place elsewhere in the Nordic region, where fertility and labour activity are significantly lower.

So what is the secret to their formula?

The Faroese have an extremely strong family bond and they live very close to each other, making it easier to get extra help from relatives, say sociologist Strøm, as well as residents.

"In our culture, we perceive a person more as a member of a family than as an independent individual," Strøm said.

"This close and intimate contact between generations makes it easier to have children," he said, adding religion only played a marginal role.

Working up to 50 hours per week at her own medical practice, Gunnhild Helmsdal often worries she won't be able to leave on time to pick up her children.

Luckily, her parents are a last-minute phone call away from helping out and taking the children to their activities.

"Because we have such close family ties, we help each other a lot... my parents live only a five- to 10-minute walk from here, so that helps," she says with a chuckle.

READ ALSO: Goodbye Denmark? Faroese weigh pulling free of Danish grip 

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