‘I was only a child’: Greenlandic women tell of trauma of forced contraception

<span>An Inuit mother and girls in traditional costume in Qeqertarsuaq, Greenland, in 2010.</span><span>Photograph: Veronique Durruty/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images</span>
An Inuit mother and girls in traditional costume in Qeqertarsuaq, Greenland, in 2010.Photograph: Veronique Durruty/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Hedvig Frederiksen had been at her new school in Paamiut, Greenland, for only a couple of days when she was summoned from her dorm to the local hospital by a Danish caretaker.

She was 14 and had no idea what was going on. “But back then [1974], when a Danish person said something, their word was law, you had to listen to them,” said Frederiksen, speaking from her home in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital.

About a dozen girls went to the hospital, some as young as 13. One by one they went into the doctor’s room and one by one they came out crying. Frederiksen was terrified but felt compelled to stay put.

Her daughter Aviaja Fontain told the story as Frederiksen quietly wept. “When she came in [to the doctor’s room], her memory just disappears and she thinks it’s because of the trauma, what happened in there. Her friend from the same dorm said the doctor didn’t have a helper; he was alone putting spirals [contraceptive coils] inside girls.”

Frederiksen, now 63, is one of 143 Greenlandic women who this month announced they were suing the Danish state, demanding a collective payment of close to 43m Danish kroner (£4.9m) for what they describe as a violation of their human rights.

They accuse Danish doctors of fitting girls as young as 12 with intrauterine devices (IUDs) in an attempt to reduce the population of the former colony, now an autonomous Danish territory. It is believed that 4,500 women and girls were affected between 1966 and 1970, with many more procedures carried out without consent in subsequent decades, but it has taken a long time for the reports to surface – and to be taken seriously.

“I have been feeling very ashamed for many years and I am very shy,” said Frederiksen. “I couldn’t even speak about it.”


The first Greenlandic woman to publicly accuse the Danish state of carrying out involuntary birth control was Naja Lyberth, who in 2017 wrote of her experiences on Facebook. She had been fitted with a coil when she was a teenager without her consent or that of her parents, she said. “The pain was indescribable,” she has said in subsequent interviews.

Despite Lyberth’s shocking story, it has taken a long time for the scandal to attract widespread attention. It wasn’t until the release of a podcast series by the Danish public broadcaster DR that the issue started to gain political traction. One woman only found out in 2022 that she had been fitted with a coil.

After a visit last year, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, Francisco Calí Tzay, highlighted the scandal as a particularly disturbing element of Denmark’s colonial legacy, condemning the structural and systemic racial discrimination inflicted on Greenland’s Inuit people and its ongoing repercussions.

“Despite significant progress, the Inuit people still face barriers to fully enjoying their human rights in both Denmark and Greenland,” Calí Tzay said, adding that he was “particularly appalled” by the testimonies of women forcibly fitted with IUDs.

Greenland ceased being a Danish colony in 1953, although it did not have its own government and parliament until 1979. Healthcare and living conditions improved, life expectancy increased and the Greenlandic population grew.

It was then that the Danish authorities are believed to have staged their drastic intervention. The programme of involuntary birth control would go on to halve the birthrate within a few years.

Last October, 67 women came forward to demand that the Danish state compensate them or face legal action, but the government did not act. Since then, the number of women – each seeking 300,000 Danish kroner (£34,430) – has more than doubled.

The women are still waiting for a full response from Copenhagen, which has launched an investigation into birth control practices carried out by Danish authorities between 1960 and 1991 (Greenland was granted control of its health policy in 1992). The investigation is due to report in May 2025. In the meantime, the government does not appear to like talking about the women’s testimony.

Denmark’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, visited Greenland on 15 March with the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, to open a new office in Nuuk. She did not address the historical violation in any official speeches during the visit. Greenland’s gender equality minister has urged the Danish health minister, Sophie Løhde, to “get on a plane” to hear the women’s stories for herself, something she has yet to do.

The Danish health ministry said it had received a subpoena in the women’s legal action and it declined to comment on the case. Løhde has in the past said: “It is a tragic matter and we must get to the bottom of what happened, which is why a team of researchers is currently conducting an independent and impartial investigation.”

For Lyberth, now a prominent psychologist and campaigner, the result of that investigation cannot come soon enough. “We know 100% that we were subjected to human rights violations and that we were not asked and we did not give consent,” she said. “We can’t wait any longer because we have to act now, especially in relation to our oldest [claimant] … [who] is over 80 years old.”


As varied as the women’s stories are, and as harrowing their details, there are recognisable patterns in the accounts of what was done to them.

Bula Larsen, who is also among the group who have sued the government, was 14 when one day the head of her dorm in Paamiut told her without explanation to go to hospital.

“I remember I was afraid and scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Larsen, now 65 and a translator who lives in Aarhus, Denmark. “At the hospital we were told to go into a room one by one and when it was my turn, when I went into the room, I could see a Danish doctor with a white doctor’s coat.”

She said there was also a Greenlandic woman there who helped him. “They told me to lie down on a bed with metal stirrups and I remember it was very cold because I had no clothes on and pain in my stomach.”

She remembers the cold tools he used to insert the IUD, the shock she felt and “tremendous pain”. She said he told her that the reason it was being fitted was “so I shouldn’t get pregnant”. “I was only a child,” she said. “I was only 14. And when I was back at the dorm I cried in the evening because I couldn’t talk with my parents and I hadn’t given any consent, nor did my parents.”

Contraceptive coils are now a safe and highly effective form of birth control. But Larsen, like many of the women who have come forward since the 60s and 70s, went on to experience serious reproductive difficulties – a consequence, they say, of being forcibly fitted, with no consent or information, with unsophisticated devices that were often too big for their young bodies, bringing with them additional risk of infection.

For Larsen, that experience felt like an assault. She was in so much pain that “afterwards I felt like I had shattered glass in my abdomen”. Later, after she got married and tried to get pregnant, she found that she could not. Years later when she was examined at a hospital, they found her fallopian tubes were closed because of the coil, which had caused severe bleeding and left her sterile.

“Me and my then husband – we are not married today – we tried and tried [to have a baby] when my fallopian tubes were opened by the doctor in surgery, but nothing happened,” she said.

Every time one of her three sisters got pregnant, she mourned for the child that had been taken away from her. “My mum called me and I just cried and cried because I couldn’t get pregnant,” she said.

It was not until two years ago, when she listened to DR’s podcast Spiralkampagnen, that Larsen realised she had not been alone in her experiences.

She was able to find joy in adopting her daughter, who is now 27 and also living in Denmark. But the experience has left her with a deep mistrust of health authorities, a fear of doctors, and damaged self-esteem.

“It is so terrible that so many Greenlandic women and girls were assaulted and because of it they couldn’t get pregnant and have a family. It is their right – no state should overrule me and the other women – our right to decide for our own body.”

Hedvig Frederiksen agrees. She does not understand how the Danish government can continue to refuse to recognise their experiences, as all the evidence is there. And every day new victims are coming forward, even though “many of them think you cannot talk about it because it feels like they have been molested or raped”, Frederiksen said.

After being fitted with the coil, Frederiksen remembers, she was in a huge amount of pain. All the girls walked back to their dorms crying and feeling ashamed, she said, and they started getting extremely painful periods.

The coil remained inside her for eight or nine years because the doctor did not tell her when it should be removed. After having it taken out she became pregnant with Aviaja, but the next time she became pregnant her fallopian tube ruptured and she lost a lot of blood. Her lawyer has said this is a common side-effect in women who were forcibly fitted with coils. Many years later, Frederiksen had two more children.

While she is happy about the legal case and the support they have received, she is filled with anger and sadness when looking back on what she endured as such a young child.

“If that had not happened to me, I wouldn’t be as shy and ashamed for many years,” she said. “And if that had not happened, my life could have been very different.”