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Manu Sareen: gender equality is key to integration

Manu Sareen: gender equality is key to integration

| Text: Marie Preisler, photo: Johannes Jansson/

Denmark is about to face the lack of gender equality in ethnic minority communities head on. The Minister for Children, Gender Equality, Integration and Social Affairs, Manu Sareen, sees young immigrants beginning to rise up against the unequal treatment of girls and boys. He encourages everyone to join in.

Everyone must join the fight for more gender equality among ethnic minorities, says Denmark’s Minister for Gender Equality Manu Sareen (Social Liberal Party). After the latest government reshuffle he is now also the Minister for Children, Integration and Social Affairs. Gender equality can be the missing key to integration, he tells the Nordic Labour Journal

“Suppression and a lack of gender equality in certain ethnic minority communities can be the key we have been looking for in order to achieve better integration. More gender equality means a better dialogue and better integration,” says Manu Sareen.

When Denmark’s government soon publishes its next action plan for gender equality in Denmark, measures aimed at ethnic minority communities will therefore have a higher priority than before. 

Manu Sareen has roots in the immigrant community himself, and for 20 years he has worked with integration. He was born in India and moved to Denmark with his parents when he was three. He worked for many years as an educator and social worker before becoming a politician. So he has seen with his own eyes the large challenges when it comes to gender equality in parts of ethnic minority communities. In some cases, the minister says, there is in reality repression, and in the worst cases this results in violence or forced marriages. He used to believe gender equality problems would solve themselves, but he now says that he was wrong:

“Many of us though that with third generation immigrants in Denmark the gender equality problems would fade away, but this has not happened and I am worried. There have been structural progress - ethnic minority girls get better educations and more women have entered the labour market - but I still hear terrible stories about social control, submission and repression.

Strong social control

He points out that there are some girls and women in ethic minority communities who are being controlled in every little thing they do. They are not allowed to go to the public bath, attend birthday parties or school leaving celebrations. They are under massive pressure to stay virgins until they are married. Then there is a small group of women who live with violent husbands, and there are girls and boys - a minority the minister understands - who are used to corporal punishment. 

There are numbers behind the minister’s words: nine in ten immigrant girls experience their relationships and sexuality are being controlled, and one in three of these girls experience the social control as being strong. Many more women than before have contacted women’s refuges because of honour related conflicts, and there is a similar boom in the number of young people who contact the Rehabilitation Center for Ethnic youth in Denmark. 

This increase could be indicative of more people experiencing oppression and inequality. But it could also mean that more people are speaking out about these things. Both speak for action now, the minister points out. He says there will be new initiatives from the government’s National strategy against honour related conflicts, which was launched in 2012. There is also still a need for continuing preventative measures and measures for changing attitudes aimed at exposed housing areas, as well as programmes in primary schools, says Manu Sareen.

Support for rebel youth

He also promises to support young people from immigrant communities who he sees are about to rebel in anger against suppression and against the way girls and boys are being treated unequally. Young people will no longer put up with it, and that is fantastic, the minister thinks. He holds up the young Danish-Palestinian poet Yahya Hassan as an example. The writer’s latest poetry collection deals with growing up with violence, abandonment and crime. It has become Denmark’s best-selling debut collection ever, and has ignited the public debate.      

The minister wants to support this youth rebellion through debates in the community, giving the young people even more power to say what it is they want.

“The core idea is that knowledge and debate leads to change, and we want to reach out and support the parents when things turn difficult,” says Manu Sareen.

Danish parents take action

But it is also necessary for the parents of ethnically Danish children to raise their voice, he says. We must not close our eyes to suppression, and to the fact that young girls are being kept at home. 

“When Fatima is not allowed to attend a birthday party and when her parents don’t show up to the school’s parents’ evening, the other parents must react and explain to them why it is important to take part. We politicians can pass legislation and municipalities can create projects, but the next big step must be taken by us Danes together.”

The minister doesn’t want to speculate whether Danes so far have left Fatima out in the cold because they are conflict avoiders and don’t want to interfere in other cultures and traditions.

“But there is room for improvement here. It is important that we safeguard our values when it comes to giving boys and girls equal opportunities, and that you and me dare to say out loud that some ways of doing things are better than others.”

He also appeals to imams and other minority community leaders to react against suppression. Urgent action is needed if it is to have any influence on gender equality and integration in the coming decade, thinks Manu Sareen.

His goal is greater gender equality but he is not saying young people from minority communities must adopt all Danish norms. 

“In no way do we aim to make all young people part of the overriding Danish youth culture including alcohol and partying into the early hours. This can be good for some. It was good for me. But is it not good for everyone. What is good and should be a right for all is to have the freedom to chose and to have control over your own body,” says Manu Sareen.

Immigrant girls and gender equality

Far more girls than boys with immigrant backgrounds take further secondary education.

91 percent of immigrant girls experience social control - 36 percent of them say they have experienced strong social control - over partner choice and sexuality.

The number of people approaching the National organisation of women’s shelters in Denmark are up tenfold on eight years ago - 101 approached the organisation in 2005, 1,146 in 2013.

The number of people approaching the Rehabilitation Center for Ethnic youth in Denmark has more than trebled in seven years - up from 64 in 2006 to 227 in 2013.

Source: The Ministry of Gender Equality

Manu Sareen

Minister for Gender Equality – the first man to hold the post

Since February 2014 he is also the Minister for Children, Integration and Social Affairs

Born in India, he moved to Denmark with his family aged three

Trained as a social educator and conflict negotiator, has worked as a consultant on ethnic issues for Copenhagen municipality

Author of several books, including one on forced marriages

46 years old

Father of three children


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