At the Empty Quarter Gallery in the United Arab Emirates, a new show “Sahara Surreal” (open from September 7 to October 14, 2011 in Dubai) “trails the bandwidth of 21st century life in the Great Desert, unhinging stereotypes along the way.”
The Empty Quarter Gallery describes the Sahara Surreal show in its September 2011 newsletter (Empty Quarter) and Christopher Lord, in a review for The National describes one of the artists’ contributions as follows:
“Northern Irish photographer Andrew McConnell documents refugee camps in Western Sahara, creating a subdued, intimate portrait of an underreported struggle… McConnell’s portraits have been shot at a bewitching hour of the night – lit by dim campfires and the stars. Accompanying each image is a story about its subject. Mariam Zaide Amar, for instance, is a 24-year-old woman undertaking a perilous landmine-clearance operation.” (Christopher Lord, “Sahara Surreal,” The National).
(Hint, when looking at the photo, if I shift my position relative to the monitor, the background becomes clearer. Try looking down on the photo from above).
The photo of Mariam Zaide Amar Lord describes was graciously shared with me by the exhibit’s curator, Elie Domit and Andrew McConnell has also given me permission to post the photo here. Mr. McConnell further describes his work in Western Sahara on his website (Andrew McConnell) and I will try to discuss the landmine problem in Western Sahara in a future post.
I found the photo Mariam Zaide Amar striking. She looked so small in the immensity of the image, a decent metaphor for the scale of demining required in Western Sahara. I was inspired by Andrew McConnell’s photo to learn more about how landmines affect women and about female deminers specifically to understand the woman in the photo a bit better.
African women and girls make up 17% of landmine casualties according to the UNMAS and the World Bank’s LC3 Dataset. The gender mainstreaming guidelines for mine action (in addition to featuring NPA’s all-female demining team in Lebanon on the cover of the 2010 publication) recommend “Ensur[ing] that all individuals, regardless of age and sex, enjoy the same level of access to, and benefit equally from, demining activities (including training and employment opportunities) (UNMAS, emphasis added). Several demining organizations have met this challenge by hiring women as deminers in all-female and integrated demining teams.
Female Deminers: A Brief Introduction
“With regards to mine clearance and female deminers, the resistance is strong in some countries, usually based on the cultural argument that this is not meant for women. Culture and religion is frequently mentioned as an excuse for hiring women. However, where empirical research is conducted, the results seem to support the opposite, and, generally speaking, demining seems to benefit from involving women. Some organisations that successfully employed female deminers claimed that they were more productive than their male counterparts; others reported success and community approval.” (WikiGender)
Norwegian People’s Aid was the first demining organization to employ women deminers back in 1999 and since then HALO Trust, Mines Advisory Group and Swedish Rescue Services, among other demining organizations, have employed women as deminers (Journal of Mine Action). Of the 13 countries I could identify with female deminers, five (including two non-state regions) were in Africa. All female demining teams have been used in South Sudan (Journal of Mine Action), Sri Lanka (Al Jazeera), Jordan (IRIN News), Laos (IRIN News), Cambodia (Mines Advisory Group), Mozambique (AlertNet) and Lebanon (The Daily Star). Integrated teams, with men and women working alongside each other can be found in Somaliland, Laos, Lebanon, Cambodia (Journal of Mine Action) and Croatia. The United Nations guidelines on gender mainstreaming in mine action describes female deminers working in Albania, Nepal and Western Sahara (as the photo of Mariam Zaide Amar so clearly demonstrates) (United Nations). The World Bank’s Landmine Contamination, Casualties and Clearance (LC3 Dataset) also reports at least one female deminer injured in Mauritania in 2005. The push for female deminers was part of broader efforts within the mine action community to incorporate gendered approaches to the work and some studies suggested that female deminers were more effective than male deminers, clearing 10% more land per working day (Journal of Mine Action).
All-female demining teams have proven useful in promoting the work of mine action organizations, but the increased awareness may not have translated to long-term impacts. In 2006, Landmine Survivors Network honored Mines Advisory Group’s Cambodia all-female demining team with the Niarchos Prize for Survivorship (Survivor Corps), but that team has since been disbanded and the members laid off due to funding shortfall. In Laos, female demining teams “double[d] press coverage of demining and UXO clearance activities in Laos” and increased the number of foreign visitors to demining sites but funding for demining in the country declined (IRIN News).
Currently in Africa, female deminers work for the HALO Trust in Somaliland and Mozambique, for Action on Armed Violence (formerly Landmine Action) in Western Sahara, and for Norwegian People’s Aid in South Sudan. Kenya’s army engineering corps has trained women to be deminers (IRIN News) and it is likely that other operators and national armies employ women deminers (e.g., Mauritania’s Army Engineering Corps). If you know of any such operators, please let me know and I will update this post accordingly.
Michael P. Moore; September 19, 2011.