Women on the road to peace

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When members of a 35-woman de-mining unit remove their protective equipment at the end of another day of clearing mines in southern Sudan, their achievement is both remarkable and ordinary. Remarkable in that the work is dangerous, technically precise and unusual in a context where women’s roles are still largely traditional. Ordinary in the way in which pregnancy and motherhood is integrated with mine clearance.

Southern and Northern Sudan signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 after 21 years of war. Four million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 600,000 refugees began to return to destroyed villages and cities. However, the main road between Juba, the capital of southern Sudan, and the town of Yei to the east was heavily mined with both anti-personnel and anti-tank mines by both the Northern Sudanese Armed Forces and the Southern Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). A three-kilometre stretch of this key access route to Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo was considered a no man’s land from 1997 to 2004. Without first de-mining the area there would be no possibility of resettling IDPs and refugees, and resuming trade and transportation.

In November 2008, while attending debriefing meetings with the UN Mine Action Office Sudan in Juba, the leader of the women’s de-mining unit, 28-year old Opani Mary Phillip, paused to reflect on the work of the team to date. She and another member of the team, Itta Betty Oliver, were preparing to resume mine clearance the following day. Ms. Phillip’s baby slept nearby under the watchful eye of a young babysitter.

“All are dangerous; all are easy to de-mine,” she said of the lethal weapons that require following standard operating procedures so precise that a mistake can mean injury or death. Ms. Oliver described the intensity of the task: “You cannot be afraid; you must put your mind to it, otherwise you cannot do your job.” The young women are proud of the safety record and successful results of the women’s de-mining team. “We have cleared land that has been returned to original owners so that they can live on it and grow food again. Schools, hospitals and trading can resume. People can lead safe lives again, ” said Ms. Phillip.

What role does gender play for women de-miners? In 2005, Norwegian Peoples’ Aid (NPA) pioneered the first female manual mine clearance team with Ms. Phillip as its team leader. Now NPA is ready to deploy its second all-female team. Why? As documented in a UN Mine Action Report earlier this year, female de-miners collect information and perform their work in ways that are highly valuable to de-mining programs. “Women are more likely than men to walk around the outskirts of their communities, collecting wood and water, and thus have better access to information about dangerous areas.” Ms. Phillip and Ms. Oliver noted that the women’s team has a higher safety and mine removal record than men’s teams because “women do everything carefully.” NPA has found that men are more likely to report to the survey teams. Drawing on the strengths of both women and men in this task is therefore considered best practice.

All the effort of specialized training and retention would be for naught if the UN and NPA didn’t factor in the reality that their best workers include women in their 20s. Therefore, pregnant employees and those on maternity leave are encouraged to take additional computer training and work in the operations centre and radio room at the organization’s base in Yei.

They return to the minefield after six months’ maternity leave. Ms. Phillip and her married team members find their husbands and families to be largely supportive. And in a war-ravaged country, skilled, paid work is highly prized.

Being a female de-miner is also a source of pride. It provides an opportunity to take the training they have received and use it to help their people who have suffered enormously through the war. “We won’t be happy if we know our work doesn’t have a big impact,” said Ms. Oliver.

Henriette Thompson is director of Partnerships at the General Synod office. Last fall she met with Sudanese leaders and bishops.

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