Ms. Ji Sun Park, Programme and Reporting Specialist; Mr. Abdul Mustafazade and Ms. Katherine O’Brien, Communication Editors, UNDP Lao PDR
For a fulfilling life for all: Stories of two female UXO operators
November 5, 2022
Ms. Lah Sengkhamyor (27) and Ms. Kouksavanh Luanboudly (26) felt proud to be part of making a change when they joined Unit 58, the Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) survey and clearance Team of the Lao People’s Army (Unit 58), in Bolikhamxay province.
Growing up in a big city like Vientiane Capital, both Lah and Kouksavanh were unfamiliar with UXOs. However, thanks to frequent reports in the news about UXO clearance, and sometimes even about casualties, they realized how important it was. They researched about the risks and impacts of UXO and the efforts to address these remnants of the Indo-China war. Previous studies have suggested that 17 provinces and capital city in Lao PDR were all contaminated with UXO and most of the poor villages in the countries are still suffering from the contamination. From 2012-2021, a total 429 casualties have been reported resulting in 102 deaths with over 60% of all casualties were children under 18.
Their research inspired both young women to become UXO operators as they wanted to make a difference and be part of a change that would make people's lives safer. Moreover, they felt fortunate that their families and friends were highly supportive of their decisions.
In 2015, Lah and Kouksavanh’s dream became true, and they became members of the UXO Clearance team of the Lao People’s Army, Unit 58.
However, passion to serve in UXO-affected communities was not enough to shape the two young girls into humanitarian UXO operators. Lah and Kouksavanh required extensive training to become UXO operators and play their parts in the process of UXO clearance in Lao PDR.
Becoming UXO operators with Unit 58 required active participation in repeated trainings. Lah and Kouksavanh’s sense of competence as UXO operators was raised by their learning and practice. "At first, I was afraid that I would not be able to do it. But after many series of training, I learned the skills to feel safe working with UXO. Now I feel confident to handle this mission and am proud of all that we have learned" Lah said.
“I have been complimented by my supervisors for my attention to detail and meticulous compliance with standard operating procedures during UXO operations. I feel that I am good at what I do.” said Kouksavanh. According to Lah and Kouksavanh, within Unit 58, clearance operators are treated with equal respect regardless of gender, and are equally appreciated in the communities where they conduct clearance. They added that both male and female members of the team cooperate to protect affected communities from the risk of UXO, and that all UXO operators are qualified professionals who have successfully completed the required trainings to deal with explosive ordnance.
As experts in this field, Lah and Kouksavanh have been imagining themselves on the management level in the division for nearly 5 years. "Every day we strive to gain more knowledge in this field and become more experienced UXO operators. We both hope to soon become first or second team leaders within Unit 58," said Kouksavanh.
This would be a historic appointment, as Unit 58 has yet to promote a woman to the role of team leader. In fact, even though 30% of workers within the UXO sector are women, female leadership in the UXO sector is rare. A persistent effort by the Government of Lao PDR (GoL), all humanitarian UXO/Mine action operators, and development partners will be required to make a fair and inclusive working environment for all genders. After that, Lao PDR may see more young women like Lah and Kouksavanh growing into specialists in the UXO sector. They would be able to serve in leadership positions as they impart their knowledge and experiences to future generations.
Lao PDR is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world. In Lao PDR, Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) is considered as a cross-cutting issue relevant to national socio-economic development and precondition for the country to accomplish all other goals of the SDGs. The UXO sector in Lao PDR consists of the National Regulatory Authority for the UXO/Mine Action Sector (NRA), National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO Lao), humanitarian NGOs, several accredited commercial companies providing UXO services, and Unit 58, the humanitarian clearance team of the Lao People’s Army. Out of 4,872 people, 35% (1,727) of whom are female, are working in the sector for risk education, victim assistance and survey and clearance.
In April 2022, with the support of the governments of the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, and Ireland, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched a 5-year project to support effectiveness and efficiency in the UXO Sector to contribute to SDG 18 Lives safe from UXO and the 10-year National Strategic Plan for the UXO sector in the Lao PDR (2021-2030), Safe Path Forward III. The project aims to pursue gender mainstreaming in the UXO Sector for enhancing the participation of more females in UXO operation activities and female advancement to leadership positions, reducing gender inequality, and subsequently, achieving gender equality in the UXO sector.
 The figure has been taken from <2021 UXO Sector Annual Report>
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