Women in demining: breaking barriers to serve with a purpose in Cambodia

September 16, 2019

Cambodia suffered through decades of civil conflict, resulting in a high number of casualties by landmines or other explosive remnants of war. Efforts to clear these mines have been intensive – demining efforts have so far contributed to a decline in casualties from roughly 3,000 annually in the 1990s to 58 in 2018. For years, demining has been predominately conducted by men – in fact, more than 80% of those supporting demining operations in Cambodia are men.

But this demographic is slowly changing.

Compared to 17% in 2017, in 2018 about 20% of deminers were women (1). This indicates that, despite the hazards and threats deminers experience, operators are nevertheless stepping up and recruiting more women to support demining efforts.

Achieving gender equality in the workplace, like demining, empowers women and drives economies.

Demining has opened doors for a better and productive life for Yi Loeum and her family. Yi Loeum has been demining for the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) in Battambang and feels proud of her work potentially saving a lot of lives. She and her colleagues work at great peril – cautiously digging underground to search for silent killers that affected many lives in Cambodia.

She is supported through UNDP’s Clearing for Results Project with the Cambodian Government, which have encouraged more women participation and visibility in the sector. The project ensures equal participation of women and men in decision-making roles in mine action activities, the empowerment of the role of women in peacekeeping operation, and addresses the issue of the Explosive Remnants of War (ERW). Although the work sounds terrifying, women in the sector have gained an extraordinary level of confidence in themselves from being in the field.

But Yi Loeum’s community was not always as supportive. Her parents also saw demining as a dangerous job, unfit for women.

She still persevered as she saw in this job an opportunity to prove herself more than capable of the work, and that dangers of demining can be avoided if proper trainings are taken. Yi Loeum believes that gender stereotypes act as barriers for women’s employment, and especially for those who also aim to serve their community.

“Women like Yi Loeum are at the forefront of creating a mine free Cambodia,” says Edwin Faigmane, UNDP Mine Action Specialist. “However, most people are not aware that women take part in one of the most dangerous sectors present in several parts of the world”.

Her courage and perseverance have enabled Yi Loeum to show confidence in herself and she has become an inspiration to others around her.

“I appreciate the great support I now have from the community. The way they perceive women deminers has completely changed. Now, they see the benefits and would like to join the profession as well,” she adds.

Building an inclusive and accepting working environment is another key component to opening opportunities for women in unconventional sectors.

“I don’t believe that women are unfit for demining. Yi Loeum is one of our most outstanding deminers in the field, and she works hard and has a goal to help save our community. This inspired me to do better in my job. This unit is like a family and we all welcome each other [new comers]. I am also learning from Yi Loeum because she has more experience than I have”, shared one of Yi Loeum’s male colleagues.

Benefits of equality

Women in demining not only help their country recover from decades of warfare, they also improve their earning potential.

The hazardous nature of the job equates to higher income opportunities. In fact, Yi Loeum could support her family. She built a new house for her parents with her earnings and supported four of her six younger sisters with their education.

Personal growth – the ultimate wealth of knowledge gained and increased capacity from trainings were most beneficial for Yi Loeum.

Women have become better acknowledged in the workforce, gradually breaking down the mainstream perception that women are unfit for certain jobs. As a society, we must encourage people to go beyond stereotypes because everyone can contribute in their own way regardless of gender. We need to foster an environment where all individuals feel included, safe and respected. It’s time to break barriers and end gender stereotypes in workplaces.

(1) iOne of UNDP’s partners, Halo Trust, has strongly supported gender equality by ensuring an equal number of women and men deminers are involved in its operations in Cambodia.

Words: Johanna Legarta is an Outreach and Communications Officer for the Clearing for Results – Mine Action for Human Development (CfR - MafHD project of UNDP Cambodia)