Greenlanders speak out about forced contraception

Thousands of young Greenland Inuit were the victim of a 1960s policy to limit the birth rate in the Arctic territory, which was no longer a colony at the time but still under Danish control.

Greenlanders speak out about forced contraception
Britta Mortensen speaks during an AFP interview on June 27th, 2022 in Ilulissat, Greenland. From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, 4,500 young Inuit women and girls from Greenland were subjected to a policy aimed at limiting the birth rate in the Arctic territory, which was still under the authority of Copenhagen. Photo: Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

“I had to spread my legs, and when it was put in it hurt terribly,” said Britta Mortensen, who was 15 she when was forced to have a coil, or intrauterine device (IUD), fitted.

Like thousands of young Greenland Inuit, Mortensen was the victim of a policy to limit the birth rate in the Arctic territory, which was still under Danish control at the time.

According to an investigation by Denmark’s public broadcaster DR, some 4,500 women were subjected to the procedure.

It was 1974 and Mortensen had just left her family for the first time. 

There was no high school in the fishing village of Ilulissat where she lived on the island’s western edge, so continuing her studies in Denmark was an opportunity for her.

“I went… to a boarding school and there the headmistress told me: ‘You have to get an IUD.’ I said no,” she recalled, standing in front of the white house where she was born.

The headmistress said: “‘Yes, you will get an IUD, even if you say no,'” Mortensen added, the hurt still clear.

Her parents, who were thousands of miles away, were never asked for consent and never informed.

One autumn day, the teenager found herself in front of a doctor ready to have the contraceptive device inserted.

“It was an IUD for women who had already had children, not for young girls the age I was,” the now 63-year-old told AFP.

After the “violation”, Mortensen took refuge in silence, unaware that her fate was shared by other Greenlandic girls in her boarding school in Jutland in western Denmark. 

“I was ashamed. I haven’t told anyone about it until now.”

But Mortensen is now taking part in a debate about what about happened — albeit timidly and mostly on Facebook, where a group set up by a psychologist who was also a victim, has brought together more than 70 women.

It’s a “mutual support group as co-sisters so no one feels alone, especially with the reactivation in the trauma that was repressed for many years,” said its creator Naja Lyberth.

It is particularly trying for women who had not been able to have children, she said.

Many women were unaware that they were wearing a contraceptive device, she added, only finding out when Greenlandic gynaecologists started discovering them.

“Typically, it was placed during an abortion, without women being informed about it,” Lyberth told AFP.

Historian Søren Rud said the Danish campaign in the late 1960s was part of a lingering colonial mentality that continued even after formal decolonisation in 1953.

This attitude “was marked by ideas of the Greenlander’s lack of cultural competences. In contrast to many forms of birth control, IUD did not require any effort from the Greenlandic women in order to be effective,” said the associate professor at the University of Copenhagen.

The women’s testimonies come at a time when Denmark and Greenland, which became an autonomous territory in 2009, are re-examining their past relationship. 

In March, Denmark apologised and paid compensation to six Inuit who were taken from their families in the 1950s to take part in an experiment to build a Danish-speaking elite in the Arctic territory.

Britta Mortensen believes that women who were forced to use contraception also deserve an apology and should also be compensated. 

“They should compensate for the harm done to us, the many girls who were forced to wear the IUD,” she said.

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Greenland takes cautious approach to tourism as icebergs melt

As tourists flock to Greenland to take in its breathtaking icebergs and natural beauty, authorities are mulling ways to control crowds to protect the fragile environment, already threatened by global warming.

Greenland takes cautious approach to tourism as icebergs melt

“It’s a dream destination,” said Yves Gleyze, a veteran off-the-beaten-track French tourist in his 60s as he arrived at the airport in Ilulissat.

Visitors to the third-biggest town in the Danish autonomous territory are met by a rugged, austere landscape of grey rock and sparse vegetation.

But mesmerising views of massive icebergs come into view after just a short drive.

Breaking off from the Ilulissat glacier in the neighbouring fjord, the majestic blocks of ice drift slowly by in Disko Bay, the occasional whale making an appearance.

The postcard views attracted 50,000 tourists in 2021, more than 10 times the town’s population.

More than half make only a short pit stop during an Arctic cruise.

Numbers are expected to swell with the opening of an international airport in the next two years, a welcome boost to the island’s revenues but also a challenge, given the delicate — and melting — ecosystem.

In the past 40 years, the Arctic has warmed nearly four times faster than the rest of the planet, according to a recent scientific study.

“We can see changes every day caused by climate change: the icebergs are getting smaller, the glacier is retreating,” said mayor Palle Jeremiassen.

Thawing permafrost is also threatening the stability of some buildings and infrastructure.

With the immaculate landscape so coveted by tourists changing,  officials are determined to protect it without turning away tourists.

“We want to control the arrival of tourist ships here,” said Jeremiassen, noting the risks posed by the highly-polluting vessels.

In order to protect the environment and community, Ilulissat should only welcome “one ship max per day, max one thousand tourists per ship,” he said.

Recently, three cruise ships arrived on the same day, spewing out 6,000 visitors.

Jeremiassen said the town’s infrastructure is not designed to accommodate such numbers, nor is it able to ensure that tourists respect protected areas, notably in the fjord.

Nearby Iceland, where the tourism industry has been flourishing for two decades, is an example of how not to do things, he insisted.

“We don’t want to be like Iceland. We don’t want mass tourism. We want to control tourism here. That’s the key we have to find.”

Greenland has enjoyed self-rule since 2009 but hopes to gain full independence from Denmark one day.

To do so means it would have to get by without subsidies from Copenhagen, which currently make up a third of its budget. It has yet to find a way to stand alone financially, and for now, its main natural resource is the sea.

In Ilulissat, one in three locals live off fishing, which accounts for most of Greenland’s revenues.

But climate change is having a big impact.

“Back when I was young we had pack ice we could walk on,” said Lars Noasen, the captain of a tourist boat as he navigated deftly between iceberg debris in Disko Bay.

“Now the pack ice is not so solid anymore. You can’t use it for anything, you can’t dogsled on the ice and fish like in the old days.”

In the past two decades, Greenland’s massive ice cap has lost 4.7 trillion tonnes of ice, contributing to a sea level rise of 1.2 centimetres on its own, according to Danish Arctic researchers.

The disappearing ice has affected fishermen.

“The ice conditions are changing. The main fjord used to be closed off by huge icebergs and sea ice and they (the fishermen) were not able to sail in before,” said Sascha Schiott, a researcher at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

Now they can.

Boats are also able to head out fishing year-round now, which has increased fishermen’s hauls.

But the size of the fish they’re catching has decreased, largely due to overfishing, says Schiott.

Ejner Inusgtuk, a craggy-faced fisherman preparing his lines in the port, disagreed and said climate change is to blame.

“The climate is too warm.”