Inspired by a Photo: Female Deminers in Africa

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).

“Mariam Zaide Amar.” © Andrew McConnell, Photo Courtesy of the Empty Quarter Gallery.

(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. 


Source: LC3 Dataset, World Bank

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.

Why new use of landmines in Sudan is a greater tragedy than new use in Libya

In early 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed between the Government of Sudan in Khartoum and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement / Army brought an end to a 20-year civil war that had killed millions of Sudanese.  Against the backdrop of worsening conditions in Darfur, the CPA was a moment of hope for Sudan and represented the culmination of years of external mediation, led by the United States among others.  Shortly after the CPA was signed, John Garang, the leader of the SPLM/A and President of South Sudan was killed in a helicopter crash, but the commitment to the CPA by both parties was strong enough to overcome this test. 

One of the provisions of the CPA was a referendum on independence for South Sudan, a referendum that passed with near universal support in January 2011; the referendum’s outcome ensured the South Sudan would become an independent nation in July 2011.  Between the referendum and the independence date, violence flared in a number of locations in Sudan and South Sudan, including Abyei, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile regions.  Abyei is a region whose status (whether to be part of Sudan or South Sudan) was supposed to be settled by a referendum which was never held and so sovereignty over Abyei is contested, mostly because of the potential oil revenues available from Abyei.  South Kordofan and the Blue Nile regions were allied with the SPLM/A at times during the civil war but are part of Sudan under the CPA so the former rebels in those regions are threatening to resume war and have been subject to reprisals from Khartoum.

Prior to the outbreaks of violence, hopes were high for a long-lasting peace in Sudan and South Sudan.  Investment in development activities, peacekeeping and humanitarian aid was very high with aid amounts increasing twelve-fold from 2000 to 2008, from $130 million to $1.75 billion.  Funding for mine action experienced similar increases, from a low of $140,607 in 2000 to almost $100 million in 2007 according to UNOCHA.  All the attention and funding for Sudan allowed the United Nations Mine Action Office in Sudan to declare in 2010 that they expected to clear all landmines and unexploded ordnance from the country by June 2011.

According to United Nations Mine Action Team data compiled in the World Bank’s Landmine Contamination, Casualty and Clearance Dataset (LC3 Dataset), the majority of mine action funding for 2005 to 2009 in Africa went to Sudan (see the below chart). 


Source: LC3 Dataset, Downloaded May 20, 2011 

This high-level of funding led to the clearance of thousands of kilometers of roads and the destruction of tens of thousands of explosive remnants of war.  However, in the same time period, Sudan did not have the majority of reported landmine and UXO casualties (451 out of 2,328 reported casualties).  The high level of investment did lead to a marked decline in the number of casualties in Sudan (from 140 in 2006 to 43 in 2009), but a similar decline was seen throughout Africa (from 752 in 2006 to 141 in 2009, see chart below). 


Source: LC3 Dataset, Downloaded May 20, 2011 

I would argue that the mine action investment in Sudan was reflective not of the need (as evidenced by the number of casualties), but of the hope that a permanent peace had been achieved in Sudan.  The violence in Unity State alone crushes some of those hopes. 

In April, a militia commanded by a former SPLA commander, Peter Gadet (also written as “Gatdet” in some articles), launched a rebellion against the South Sudan government in Unity State.  Gadet’s forces used landmines to close roads within Unity; at least six separate landmine incidents were reported in the first half of May and I could identify at least 11 casualties (five killed and six injured) from newspaper articles (found by searching for “landmine” and “Sudan” on about one of the incidents in early May and three others from April, late May and June.  This is in contrast to UNMAS’s reported figure of 14 landmine and UXO casualties in Unity State for the period 2005-2009.  The UN Mine Action Office in Sudan believed that these incidents were due to new laying of landmines based upon anecdotal evidence and the fact that no minefields had been identified in Unity State as of 2009.  In other words, 11 casualties is the absolute minimum for landmine casualties in Unity State as a result of the new landmines laid by Gadet’s rebels; the real figure is probably much higher and represents a significant increase in the number of landmine casualties and a reversal of the historical trend. 

The developing civil war in Libya, pitting ragtag rebels against Moammar Ghaddafi’s regime, also saw significant new use of landmines by the regime.  The rebels in Libya pledged not to use landmines and many stories, like this one, circulated about the volunteer deminers among the rebels. But Libya never signed the Mine Ban Treaty, maintaining a stockpile of an unknown number landmines, and has supported terrorist organizations in the past as evidenced by the Lockerbie bombing.  In recent years, Ghaddafi sought a thaw in relations with the West and dismantled his weapons of mass destruction programs (providing information about Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan in the process), but I don’t think anyone really thought he was a good guy or that his regime would morph into a democracy.  NATO’s willingness to act under the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine in Libya was definitely conditioned by the fact that Ghaddafi is an unrelenting tyrant who just happens to be sitting on massive petroleum wealth which would be made available to Europe should the rebels succeed.  The fact that Ghaddafi’s forces used landmines should not be a surprise; had he not given up his WMD I’m sure he would have contemplated their use as well. 

Sudan, on the other hand, is a party to Mine Ban Treaty and destroyed its stockpile of landmines in 2008, as well as destroying found stockpiles that had previously been in rebel hands.  In 2009, the Government of Sudan declared that less than 2,000 landmines had been retained for training purposes (an allowable action under the Mine Ban Treaty).  South Sudan did not retain any mines separately from those controlled by the officials in Khartoum.  So, the Sudanese people, in Unity State and elsewhere, had a reasonable expectation that no new landmines would be laid, an expectation the rebels in Libya could not have.  This is the real tragedy: Sudan was approaching a mine-free (or at least mine-safe) status that has been undermined by the new usage of landmine.  A further question that needs to be resolved is the provenance of the landmines laid by Gadet’s rebels.  Human Rights Watch has used the fact that Libya’s mines were manufactured by Brazil and Belgium, signatories to the Mine Ban Treaty, to shame the producers and leading Brazil to launch an investigation into how its mines came to be in Libyan stockpiles.  To the best of my knowledge, similar inquiries have not been made into the origin of Gadet’s landmines. Either they came from the stocks retained for training or they came from undeclared stockpiles or they were obtained from a third party, all of which are illegal under the Mine Ban Treaty and if such behavior goes unpunished, other nations and rebels could follow suit, deepening the tragedy.

Michael P. Moore, August 12, 2011