Greenland seeks to break silence around child sexual abuse

Copenhagen (AFP) –


In Greenland, the scourge of child sexual abuse has emerged as a pressing concern with nearly one in three having suffered abuse in their childhood, and efforts to combat it hampered by a persistent conspiracy of silence.

The sparsely populated autonomous Danish territory is confronted with major social problems, including high levels of suicide and alcoholism. The government highlights alcohol and hash abuse as the number one health concern.

But the recent airing of a documentary on sexual abuse on Danish public television has put the spotlight on the issue, renewing the Arctic island's commitment to tackling abuse of children.

"I was about six years old... I was woken up in the middle of the night because someone was touching me. My hands were tied, my knees were tied and he abused me," said Anna-Sofie Jonathansen in the documentary.

She is a resident of Tasiilaq, a remote village in the south-east where the documentary said nearly half of adults under 60 years of age have been sexually abused as children.

Tasiilaq also reflects another troubling statistic with as many as one in five people committing suicide.

Greenland has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, averaging one per thousand inhabitants.

"Many children are victims of sexual abuse and experience violence in their homes. For many of them, this leads to a life full of problems and anxieties, which leads many young people to commit suicide," Jonna Ketwa, president of the NGO Save the Children in Greenland, told AFP.

The pervasiveness of the sexual abuse is heavily linked to consumption of drugs and alcohol and it's more common in violent homes, according to Sara Olsvig, director of UNICEF in Greenland, who also says there is a lack of knowledge of children's rights.

But complicating matters is that among Greenland's 56,000 inhabitants the silence around sexual abuse remains deeply embedded.

"For many of them, that's just the way it is," Rikke Blegvad, a teacher interviewed in the documentary said.

Naasunnguaq Ignatiussen Streymoy, another resident of Tasiilaq, started a petition for better support for victims and said she had received death threats for putting the village in a negative light.

"There will be consequences because it's not okay to portray their perfect village in this way," she said in the documentary.

- Modest improvements -

According to a public health study published in April, 20 percent of Greenlanders born after 1995 were sexually abused as children. That share is less than half that of the previous generation when 43 percent of people born between 1975 and 1979 suffered abuse.

And there are signs that the conspiracy of silence is starting to show cracks as more Greenlanders come forward to report abuse to authorities.

In 2018, 436 complaints of sexual offences, 50 more than the previous year, were filed in Greenland, of which 20 percent concerned minors. That represents eight complaints per 1,000 inhabitants compared with 1.1 complaint per 1,000 in the rest of Denmark.

"Within the police and the prosecution authority we are seeing that, for the moment, the taboo around sexual abuse is ever so slightly being challenged," said Greenland Police Chief Bjorn Tegner Bay in his annual report.

But he also noted that "there is a long way to go", and in some areas there were no reports of abuse against children, indicating that the culture of silence still reigns.

- Calls for help -

"Changes should come from inside," said Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, who represents Greenland in the Danish Parliament.

"But we need to collaborate with qualified people to gather more knowledge and have a permanent investment," she added.

Chemnitz Larsen has requested the aid of Copenhagen to help address the issue.

Even Greenland's local parliament, traditionally staunchly mindful of its autonomy, has turned to Denmark, which normally only handles state functions and foreign and defence policy.

In Nuuk, the government which is sovereign in terms of economic and social policy has put in place a strategy with the aim of eradicating the sexual abuse of children by 2022.

To this end, it intends to launch information campaigns, particularly aimed at raising awareness on children's rights and respect of physical integrity.

The government has also promised to provide care for all those affected, but to deliver on this promise it needs to encourage social workers to move closer to the territory's most remote areas, where sexual abuse is more frequent.

"There are not enough psychologists or social workers to help... families and victims. We are not even close to being able to help predators," Ketwa from Save the Children in Greenland, told AFP.