AURORA.

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noun. \ ə-ˈrȯr-ə
1) emission of light from atoms excited by electrons;
2) the Roman goddess of dawn.

 

SARA OLSVIG.

“Judge me on the things I do, not my gender”

Photo Credit: Angu Motzfeldt

Photo Credit: Angu Motzfeldt

In many respects Greenland is at the forefront of gender equality, but obstacles remain for the advancement of women both professionally and domestically. In conversation with Erica Dingman, Sara Olsvig reflects on initiatives started during her time as an elected official, areas for improvement, and why women’s right and children’s rights should be considered collectively.

Erica Dingman (ED): How has your time in politics affected your views on gender?

Sara Olsvig (SO): I grew up in a family of all girls. Like many families in Greenland, hunting and fishing was part of our life. There was never a question that boys and girls couldn’t do the same, so I didn’t see gender as an issue when I entered politics.

When I was elected to the Danish Parliament in 2011 to represent the interests of Greenland, I was a single parent of a five-year-old daughter and this is when I started to see structural issues. For instance, I was informed that children weren’t permitted to live in the apartment designated for parliamentary members, when at work in Copenhagen. What should I do? I brought my daughter along.

In 2013, I decided to run for political office in Greenland and was soon after elected leader of the Inuit Ataqatigiit Party. Interviewers would ask how I felt about being the first woman to lead the party which I answered, ‘hopefully people will judge me on the things I do, not my gender’. The worst thing I ever experienced, that I’m sure no man would ever experience, was other women on social media writing that I was a bad mother, because I worked a lot and was away from my daughter. That really hit me hard. Harder than not winning elections.

Looking back, I realize that I spent so much energy making sure that I couldn’t be criticized because of my motherhood, or because I was a woman. I was always maintaining the appearance that things weren’t difficult. But as for any parent, and in particular for single parents, of course it was challenging to make things work.


ED: Do you find that more women are interested in becoming politically active either in Parliament or in their own communities?

SO: Greenland has a good record on women in Parliament, it has been close to 50 percent, but the municipal councils up north have few women and the settlement councils even less. In my time as party leader, we tried to make sure that 50 percent of our electoral candidates were women. However, it was still a struggle to get women to run.

Politically, I don’t think enough has been done, but it’s my hope that gender equality will become of higher priority. I think equity, equality and prevention of hate speech are a foundation for gender equality. Also, it’s important to understand that there are differences in perception, and access to education and information, and to differentiate how initiatives are conducted in distinct communities both urban and rural. In my assessment these issues need to be much more in the open to ensure that there are more women in politics.

 

ED: In addition to political equality what were some of your other priorities as Minister of Social Affairs, Gender Equality and Justice?

SO: Greenland has an alarming rate of sexual abuse. Reports say that one-third of all girls and a tenth of boys have experienced some kind of sexual abuse, as well as many adults. At the same time, the way we debate abuse in rural areas is quite different than in urban areas. There is a need for awareness raising, for openness and also knowledge sharing.

When I was Minister, I initiated a program called Killiliisa, which means ‘let’s agree on a boundary’. It was later implemented by my successor. All areas of legislation must focus on preventing sexual abuse. You focus on the abused, the abuser, and also model initiatives so they are designed for the location. So smaller settlements may need different initiatives than the city of Nuuk. You also ensure that the police, the justice system, health and social services, and educators are involved in the prevention of sexual abuse.

 

ED: As a mother and professional you have come across many challenges. What needs to change?

SO: First, I think we need to consider women’s rights and children’s rights in combination.

As an example, we try to provide the same health-related opportunities in small settlements and towns as we do in cities, but in practice that’s not possible. So, a woman ready to give birth must travel a long distance at least a month before the due date, removed from her network and family, while the father often stays home if they have older children. It disrupts the beginning of family life and creates a feeling of insecurity for the family and the mother. We have to figure out how society can do this better because it creates a considerable sense of unsafety.

Another example is the gender imbalance intrinsic to our parental leave system. Because it’s the norm for the mother to go on leave, the father will choose not to, sometimes in part because the father has a higher income. So, this makes it more difficult for a woman to have a career.

When I was Minister of Social Affairs I was working on a parental leave fund. At the time, one issue raised by the employer’s union and others was that women of childbearing age were often passed over for jobs. So, the idea to establish a fund that makes sure that either parent maintains his or her income while on leave is very relevant. The issue in general is very important to ensure that there is better gender balance in employment than there is now.

 

ED: What’s your final thought?

SO: We have to recognize that gender is still an issue. As I see things now, at least in Greenland, we have many obstacles that make it difficult for women to pursue their professional interests, although we are ahead in many areas. There are a lot of strong women in leadership including the boards of self-government owned corporations where we have had up to 60 percent women, but it took a parliamentary initiative to make that happen. There is a need for initiatives that initially may seem unnecessary but, in the end, ensure that we achieve gender balance.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Taken by Navarana Olsvig, Sara's daughter, at her childhood town of Qasigiannguit.

Taken by Navarana Olsvig, Sara's daughter, at her childhood town of Qasigiannguit.

Sara Olsvig is the UNICEF Head of Programme, Greenland. She is a former parliamentarian and minister. She has been leader of the political party Inuit Ataqatigiit, and Vice Premier and Minister of Social Affairs, Families, Gender Equality and Justice in the Government of Greenland. Olsvig is an anthropologist and has also worked as Executive Director for Inuit Circumpolar Council Greenland. Sara lives in Nuuk with her partner Johan Rosbach and their three children.

You can find Sara Olsvig on Twitter: @SaraOlsvig

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Aurora champions women and gender equality through a series of interviews inclusive of a wide range of voices. We recognize that freedom of expression is an important step towards equitable outcomes for women and by extension all of humanity.