Gender and mine action: no longer a question of “empowerment”, but of common sense

Oct 6, 2020

Gender and mine action: no longer a question of empowerment, but of common sense

An all-female demining team in action in South Sudan. Photo: UNMAO/Elena Rice

“Demining is seen as a man’s job.” These are the words of Itta Betty Oliver Lowela, who works with the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in South Sudan. When Itta Betty became one of the first South Sudanese women to be trained as a deminer in 2007, she did so in a place emerging from decades of conflict. Thirteen years later, explosive ordnance (EO) — from remnants of war buried out of sight to improvised devices laid during recent conflict — continues to pose a threat to South Sudanese people. Itta Betty now leads a team of educators working to keep communities in EO-contaminated areas safe.

Itta Betty Oliver Lowela / Photo: UNMISS

Throughout the world, more and more women are working in mine action — in roles ranging from clearance and survey to risk education, victim assistance, and weapons and ammunition management. There are clear advantages to improved gender balance in mine action. For example, women in some communities have reported feeling more comfortable receiving risk education or disclosing the presence of EO when they can engage with other women. Describing her former work as a deminer, Itta Betty recalled, “We achieved the same clearance rates as the men; sometimes we cleared even more than them.”

Itta Betty Oliver Lowela / Photo: UNMISS

The increased participation of women in mine action has wide-reaching effects. The training of women deminers and educators is a boon for women’s economic agency. Security sector mentoring and training targeted at women — as seen, for example, in Iraq, where UNMAS delivered courses on explosive accident first response to women police officers — can break down gender barriers in security institutions.

Mine action can also pave the way for women to play a greater role in peace processes. As an operations and training officer in UNMAS Colombia, Nathalie Ochoa supported the creation of a humanitarian demining organization made up of former FARC combatants. The organization, HUMANICEMOS DH, aims not only to clear the explosive remnants left over from Colombia’s more than 50-year civil conflict, but also to reintegrate former combatants — many of whom are women — into society. “When they tell me that the work that women do in mine action is ‘heroic’, I don’t take it literally,” says Nathalie. “More than being classified as a ‘hero’ for my work, I would like to be seen by other women, so that they know it is possible to make a career in mine action.”

Nathalie Ochoa / Photo: UNMISS

In Nathalie’s view, it is not just about getting women into mine action; they must be able to climb the ranks. “Now the challenge is to stop measuring gender policies based on the percentages of women hired, especially when these women cannot climb to high leadership positions,” she says. Rather, she argues that more training and mentoring opportunities are needed, particularly given that many areas affected by EO are rural, where local communities, including women, are not always in a position to access higher education. UNMAS globally has seen an increase in the number of women in technical positions, which have historically been male-dominated roles, rising from 3% in 2017 to 19% in 2020. UNMAS policies and initiatives aim to make sure this positive trend continues.

Although men and boys make up the vast majority of victims of EO, the impact on women takes insidious, indirect forms. Women survivors experience greater challenges in accessing healthcare or services and reintegrating into society, particularly if they are living with disabilities. Those who remain unscathed can be forced to become caregivers to other victims, taking on more family responsibilities and, sometimes, giving up their education. Gender-sensitive programming and sex- and gender-disaggregated data ensure that the specific challenges women face are adequately measured, monitored and addressed.

COVID-19 changed much for Itta Betty and Nathalie. Activities were adjusted or scaled back in line with national and international recommendations. Yet, both women — and countless colleagues of all genders — stayed the course, adapting and continuing their activities when opportunities arose or coordinating from their homes or bases. Not because they are heroes — but because that’s what needed to be done.

Gender and mine action: no longer a question of “empowerment”, but of common sense was originally published in We The Peoples on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.