Women in Cambodia work to
clear mines, save lives


“I had to familiarize myself with the mines so I can be more con-fident and not be afraid,” says Song Sreymao, a deminer in Bat-tambang province. “If you’re afraid of the mines, you cannot do this job.” Photo: Maria Frio, UNDP

Today, in Banteay Meanchey Province, northwest Cambodia, 55-year-old Teng Louch can grow his crops without fear of injury or death. Nineteen anti-personnel mines and explosive remnants of war have just been found, removed and destroyed in the area surrounding his village, including from plots of land near his house.

In a country that has long suffered from the effects of civil conflicts in the '70s and '80s, intensive de-mining efforts, with help from UNDP, have contributed to a steady decline in casualties caused by landmines or other explosive remnants of war from 188 deaths in 2006, to 48 in 2013. For many farmers, who no longer fear accidentally setting off an explosion, this can make all the difference.

Highlights

  • UNDP supports the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority in regulating, monitoring and coordinating Cambodia's mine action sector.
  • Supported by the governments of Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Austria and the United Kingdom, the 5-year UNDP project operates on a budget of US $25 million and has benefited more than 700,000 people.
  • To fulfill its obligations towards the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty, Cambodia will have to clear all its unexploded ordinance by 2019.
  • About 1,700 square kilometres of land remain contaminated with landmines and explosive remnants of war, with further US $440 million needed to make the country mine-free.

“I used to be a labourer, cultivating other people’s land for them and being paid KHR 16,000 (US$ 4) a day,” says Louch, who once gave up farming in his contaminated home province. “Now, I can farm near my home and earn an income from it.”

So far, more than 80 percent of land that has been declared free of dangerous remnants of war, has been put to use for farming. In particular, cassava crops provide an important export with lucrative returns. "Since 2006, the project has released over 8,300 hectares of land," says David Horrocks, UNDP's mine action advisor.

It is not only farmers who benefit from the de-mining programme, however. While women in Cambodia are often at an increased risk of poverty, they are more likely to work in less profitable sectors, and struggle to compete for jobs in predominantly male fields. UNDP has been employing growing numbers of women to participate in de-mining programmes. Women who receive training in de-mining not only help their country recover from decades of warfare, but also improve their earning potential.

Ruot Sreyla is one such woman. Until five years ago, the 24-year-old lived in Pursat Province, farming for a daily wage of KHR 12,000 (US$ 3) and supporting her 3-year-old son. When she learned about a job opportunity as a de-miner, she signed up for a six-week training course that taught her how to detect mines and help remove them safely.

Today, Sreyla is a de-miner working in Battambang Province. Together with her coworkers, she receives life and medical insurance, paid maternity leave and a salary of US$ 203 per month, a considerable amount in a country where GDP per capita is less than US$ 1,000 per year.

“Mine risk educators have made efforts to encourage women’s participation in activities and have promoted equal access to employment,” says Peang Sovannary, a gender expert at the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority. “However, there are some areas where gender inequality persists, such as the number of women attending planning meetings. Greater focus on participation at the local level to promote gender equality would help increase women’s involvement."

For Sreyla, the training and her new job have paved the way toward a better future. “I am an uneducated girl in the city,” Sreyla says. “If I weren’t a deminer, I would still be a laborer earning much less."

So far, Cambodia has rid its land of close to 500,000 anti-personnel landmines, 10,000 anti-tank mines and almost 2 million explosive remnants of war since demining efforts started in 1992. While close to 20,000 Cambodians have been killed by unexploded ordinance over the past 35 years, de-mining programmes are helping to reduce this cruel heritage of war.