Family ties make Faroese women Europe’s top baby makers

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.

Family ties make Faroese women Europe's top baby makers
Suduroy, the southernmost of the Faroe Islands. photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix

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 


Why mass dolphin slaughter could catalyse change to Faroe Islands tradition

Every summer in the Faroe Islands hundreds of pilot whales and dolphins are slaughtered in drive hunts known as the "grind" that residents defend as a long-held tradition.

Why mass dolphin slaughter could catalyse change to Faroe Islands tradition
Photo by Lachlan Gowen on Unsplash

The hunt always sparks fierce criticism abroad, but never so much as last week when a particularly bountiful catch saw 1,428 dolphins massacred in one day, raising questions on the island itself about a practice that activists have long deemed cruel.

Images of hundreds upon hundreds of dolphins lined up on the sand, some of them hacked up by what appeared to be propellers, the water red with blood, shocked some of the staunchest supporters of the “grind” and raised concern in the archipelago’s crucial fishing industry.

For the first time, the local government of the autonomous Danish archipelago located in the depths of the North Atlantic said it would re-evaluate regulations surrounding the killing of dolphins specifically, without considering an outright ban on the tradition.

“I had never seen anything like it before. This is the biggest catch in the Faroes,” Jens Mortan Rasmussen, one of the hunter-fishermen present at the scene in the village of Skala, told AFP.

While used to criticism, he said this time round it was “a little different”.

“Fish exporters are getting quite a lot of furious phone calls from their clients and the salmon industry has NOW mobilised against dolphin-hunting. It’s a first.”

The meat of pilot whales and dolphins is only eaten by the fishermen themselves, but there is concern that news of the massacre will hit the reputation of an archipelago that relies considerably on exporting other fish including salmon.

Traditionally, the Faroe Islands  — which have a population of 50,000 — hunt pilot whales in a practice known as “grindadrap,” or the “grind.”

Hunters first surround the whales with a wide semi-circle of fishing boats and then drive them into a bay to be beached and slaughtered by fishermen on the beach.

Normally, around 600 pilot whales are hunted every year in this way, while 
fewer dolphins also get caught.

Defending the hunt, the Faroese point to the abundance of whales, dolphins, and porpoises in their waters (over 100,000, or two per capita).

They see it as an open-air slaughterhouse that isn’t that different to the millions of animals killed behind closed doors all over the world, said Vincent Kelner, the director of a documentary on the “grind”.

And it’s of historical significance for the Faroe Islanders: without this meat from the sea, their people would have disappeared.

But still, on September 12th, the magnitude of the catch in the large fjord came as a shock as fishermen targeted a particularly big school of dolphins.

The sheer number of the mammals that beached slowed down the slaughter which “lasted a lot longer than a normal grind”, said Rasmussen.

“When the dolphins reach the beach, it’s very difficult to send them back to sea, they tend to always return to the beach.”

Kelner said the fishermen were “overwhelmed”.

“It hits their pride because it questions the professionalism they wanted to put in place,” he added.

While defending the practice as sustainable, Bardur a Steig Nielsen, the archipelago’s prime minister, said Thursday the government would re-evaluate “dolphin hunts, and what part they should play in Faroese society.”

Critics say that the Faroese can no longer put forward the argument of sustenance when killing whales and dolphins.

“For such a hunt to take place in 2021 in a very wealthy European island community… with no need or use for such a vast quantity of contaminated meat is outrageous,” said Rob Read, chief operating officer at marine conservation NGO Sea Shepherd, referring to high levels of mercury in dolphin meat.

The NGO claims the hunt also broke several laws.

“The Grind foreman for the district was never informed and therefore never authorised the hunt,” it said in a statement.

It also claims that many participants had no licence, “which is required in the Faroe Islands, since it involves specific training in how to quickly kill the pilot whales and dolphins.” 

And “photos show many of the dolphins had been run over by motorboats, essentially hacked by propellers, which would have resulted in a slow and painful death.”

Faroese journalist Hallur av Rana said that while a large majority of islanders defend the “grind” itself, 53 percent are opposed to killing dolphins.