Female deminers attract fans but little funding

In the two years since the Laos government set up the first team of women clearing unexploded ordnance (UXO), they have had lots of attention, but this has not translated into increased funding, says the UN, which is supporting government programmes.

"It was quite in vogue with donors to have all-female teams," said John Dingley, the UN's senior technical adviser working with the government's UXO Lao clearance programme. "But more than that, these are good jobs and we want to create as many opportunities as possible for women in post-conflict settings."

However, as of late 2010, UXO Lao faces a US$322,000 funding shortfall.

Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, after more than two million tons of UXO - mostly cluster bomblets - were dropped between 1964 and 1973, according to the government's National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action.

While there have been women working in the government's clearance operation since it began in 1996, the government only started grouping all-female teams (albeit with a male mechanic/driver) in 2008, following the lead of the British demining NGO, Mines Advisory Group (MAG), which has worked in the country since 1994 and launched all-female UXO clearance teams in Laos in 2007.

Lou McGrath, MAG's chief executive, described MAG's "ladies first" initiative as a "genuine move to redress gender balance in the UXO sector".


Women can more easily relate to other women when assessing priorities for demining, said UN adviser Dingley. Whereas men may focus on fields, women might choose paths to water wells.

In the 17 countries where MAG operates, 13 percent of its 2,526 staff are women. It has only tried all-female teams in Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia, which no longer has any because of funding cuts, a point not lost on Saisamon Noonthasin, 35, who has been clearing UXOs in Laos since leaving school 15 years ago.

"There were no other women who went into it [at the time], but I wanted to help my country and besides, I could not find any other jobs out of school," said the mother of two, who earns $200 per month.

In 2009, she was one of 166 women clearing UXOs out of 1,039 government-funded staff. (Only male soldiers demine, which is more dangerous and potentially deadlier than working with UXOs.)

Since Noonthasin moved from a mixed team to an all-female UXO clearance team in 2008, however, she has noticed a significant increase in the number of visits from curious foreigners (18 field visits in the first 11 months of 2010).

Noonthasin hosted two visiting delegations while clearing UXOs in Pek District in Xiengkhuang Province, one of the country's most heavily mined areas. She led a team of 12 who cleared 14,550 sqm of land in an area of 164,804 sqm where 282 residents live. They found 183 UXOs and finished clearing the plot in mid-December.

Female members of UXO Lao do most of what men do, other than fix cars, detonate phosphorous, cut down trees or move big bombs.

But while the women have helped more than double press coverage of demining and UXO clearance activities in Laos, there has actually been a reduction in funding, said Dingley. For example, Ireland, suffering economic troubles at home, cut its funding to $500,000 from $1 million in 2006-2009.


/// This version corrects the name of Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and adds Sri Lanka to the list of countries where MAG has supported all-female teams.