Stories from Laos: "I'm the first female bomb disposal expert"

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Chantavone Inthavongsy at work. Credit: UXO Lao PDR

During the second Indochina War between 1964 and 1974, more than 2 million tons of bombs, including cluster bombs, along with other ordnance were dropped on my country, leaving a quarter of all villages contaminated with unexploded devices.

As a child, I heard many stories of people who had been injured – losing limbs and sometimes their lives. I wanted to do something to help. When I was just 20 years old I trained with UXO Lao, the national clearance operator. They taught me to be part of a team that detects, removes and safely disposes of these dangerous explosive devices. I felt nervous about the job, but I was assured that, as long as we followed instructions, it would be safe. I was the only woman to pass the test and become a team leader straight away!

I became responsible for a team of 10 people. We were detecting and destroying unexploded ordnance five days a week in the fields and mountainsides across the province. It provided me with valuable experience and I was very proud of my job. After six years, I was promoted to Senior Explosive Ordnance Deminer and was, until last year, the only fully qualified woman holding this position at UXO Lao. There are now three of us.

I am responsible for 40 people among four clearance teams. Safety comes above anything else, and it’s my job to make sure that everyone in the team is properly trained, fit and healthy, and that the equipment is fully functioning and that all standards are met. I have to make sure every job is done to perfection, and no detail is overlooked.

My colleagues respect me and I’ve never had any issues even with male technicians taking orders from me. They know that they have to pay careful attention to my instructions. I don’t see any obstacles for women doing this job. I believe that a woman can do any job as long as she is determined, works hard and does her best. Women can and should play important roles in society.

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Lao PDR, one of the poorest countries in Asia, is also one of the world’s most heavily bombed places. Around 30 percent of the 270 million cluster bombs dropped during the second Indochina conflict, along with other left-over ordnance, never detonated. Today, much of it remains in the ground, killing dozens of Lao people each year through accidents, making land inaccessible, affecting food security, livelihoods and economic development, and preventing many from escaping poverty.

UXO Lao was founded to clear explosive remnants of war in Lao PDR in 1996, with assistance from UNDP and UNICEF and support from donors.