Gender Issue: An Example from Lao PDR

by Jo Durham [ MAG Lao ]

This article begins with a brief overview of the literature that helped frame a gender assessment MAG undertook and put gender into perspective within the broader development discourse, helping to identify where there are important linkages between gender and mine action. Following this summary, which highlights the centrality of gender in poverty-eradication efforts, an overview of the assessment (including methods and key findings) is provided.

Increasingly, gender is being incorporated into the discourse of mine action, but is it really relevant? Does understanding gender add value to service delivery, program outcomes and impacts? Can we as mine-action practitioners really influence equitable post-clearance benefits? What does gender mainstreaming really mean for mine-action practice?

A MAG clearance team sets up their equiptment to  clear land needed by local villagers for agriculture. Khamouane province, Lao  PDR.
A MAG clearance team sets up their equiptment to clear land needed by local villagers for agriculture. Khamouane province, Lao PDR.

These were some of the questions that MAG–Lao was grappling with in early 2007 when the United Nations Development Programme–Laos was also trying to understand more thoroughly the gender perspectives in unexploded ordnance/landmine action as a part of its gender-mainstreaming strategy. With funding from Irish Aid (through UNDP) and MAG, and with support from Lao Women’s Union, MAG–Lao undertook a gender assessment in five UXO-contaminated provinces to answer some of these questions.

Literature Review

According to the United Nations, the objective of mine action is to reduce the impact of landmines and explosive remnants of war to a level at which “people can live safely; in which economic, social and health development can occur free from the constraints imposed by landmine and ERW contamination.”1,2 In order to fulfill this objective and contribute to post-conflict recovery in a meaningful way, mine action must be integrated into broader rehabilitation and development processes. Increasingly, post-conflict landmine/ERW contamination is being viewed as a cross-cutting development issue with linkages among mine action, development, achievement of the Millennium Development Goals3 and poverty-reduction strategies. In Lao PDR, for example, UNDP and the government of Lao PDR both view UXO pollution as a key issue in poverty reduction. The nonprofit mine-action sector operators, including MAG and the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme, explicitly link their work to the Government’s National Growth and Poverty Eradication Strategy3 and broader development goals. The increasing focus on post-clearance impact assessments to establish the worth of mine-action interventions also shows an understanding that mine action and socioeconomic development are intrinsically linked.

If it is accepted that mine action has a role in poverty alleviation and promoting socioeconomic development, then a critical examination of poverty—including how it is caused, manifested and reduced, and how these different dimensions may interact with mine-action processes—is needed. It is beyond the scope of this article to provide such an in-depth analysis, which is a review of the literature on poverty reduction and development; however, this article illustrates the importance of gender. More specifically, the literature demonstrates the need for greater gender equity in order to achieve reasonable economic growth, sustainable peace, human rights and the MDGs. While much of the literature focuses on women’s poverty, issues around fair access to income, assets, power and decision-making process (both within the home and the wider political sphere) are also seen as key determinants of equality and poverty alleviation. Investments in gender equity prove more likely to advance overall household well-being, as well as promote human rights.5 According to the Asian Development Bank, “any effective strategy to reduce poverty must empower disadvantaged groups, especially women, to exercise their rights and participate more actively in decisions that affect them.”6

It is perhaps possible to argue that the degree to which equitable benefits are derived from post-clearance activities relies on non-mine-action service providers who undertake the downstream development work. A review of the literature suggests that, if mine action is genuinely to fulfill its stated objectives, it is crucial deliberate steps are taken to develop strategies that involve men and women equally from the start of programs. This may include, for example, promoting equal access to mine-action services and ensuring impartial participation in the design, implementation and monitoring of such services, including the initial identification and decisions made about how to prioritize land for clearance and post-clearance land use. The presence of a gender-balanced workforce is also necessary to understand gender-related issues and promote equal participation. The Lao gender assessment outlined below, represents an initial step in understanding gender and mine action in Lao PDR. The initial assessment—planned with MAG and UXO–Lao, and followed by discussions with the National Regulatory Authority for the UXO sector in the Lao PDR and other stakeholders—was widened to include other nonprofit service providers.

Gender Assessment in Lao PDR

One of the main purposes of the assessment was to have more insight on the levels of access recipients had to information as well as participation in mine-action services and the extent these services promote equitable participation and transfer of knowledge. The purpose was also to provide practical recommendations for MAG, UXO Lao and other operators who were the key players and focus of this assessment. It is also crucial that the National Regulatory Authority set the agenda for the UXO sector in Lao PDR through national strategy and standards to provide feasible ways to move forward. With this framework in mind, the assessment mainly looked at the impact of UXO contamination, participation, access to clearance, task identification processes, community awareness, survivor assistance and employment.

Boua Van marks the spot where her detector signaled  a metal item. It could be a metal fragment, a nail or a cluster bomblet. Xieng  Khoung province, Lao PDR.
Boua Van marks the spot where her detector signaled a metal item. It could be a metal fragment, a nail or a cluster bomblet. Xieng Khoung province, Lao PDR.

Methodology. Few examples of such assessments within the mine-action sector were found in the literature; therefore, the assessment was exploratory in nature, taking on a diverse approach and thus capitalizing on the strengths and minimizing the weaknesses of qualitative and quantitative approaches.7 Given the previous limited amount of work undertaken in this area within the mine-action sector in the Lao PDR, the qualitative data collection was undertaken first.8

Qualitative data was collected using focus groups, along with semi-structured interviews and activity profiles and key informant interviews. For the qualitative phase, data collection was completed when no new information was emerging, in other words when "data saturation" had been achieved. The qualitative data was examined by identifying themes which were used to inform the development of a structured quantitative questionnaire. Information gained from the structured questionnaire helped confirm the themes identified in the qualitative phase. Respondents for the structured village based questionnaire given to program beneficiaries, were randomly selected in each village included in the assessment. Using different methods (qualitative and quantitative) and a range of respondents helped to strengthen the data.

All data-collection tools were pre- and post-tested, translated and back translated, and did not require participants to be able to read or write. Training was provided to the supervisors and enumerators prior to commencing the study and ongoing quality-control checks were implemented. Supervisors were attached to each data-gathering team to make sure the questionnaires were completed properly and all data was cleaned before analysis. Prior to each interview or questionnaire, participants were informed of their rights to withdraw from the assessment at anytime without retribution. Informed consent was also obtained from the participants.

Findings and discussion. The assessment looked at the impact from both the perspective of the prevalence of UXO-related mortality and morbidity, and the perspective of land use. Data from Lao PDR and elsewhere revealed that men were more likely to suffer from UXO injury and death. Activity profiles also suggested that male-reported behaviors tended to increase the possibility of exposure to UXO compared to activities reported by women. For example, according to the data, men were more likely to plough the land (hoeing or with a small tractor), which increases the probability of them being exposed unintentionally to UXO. Women on the other hand, participated in planting, which is less risky in terms of exposure to UXO. This finding also correlated with a UNICEF-funded mine-risk education assessment in Lao PDR.9 Following a UXO injury, males were also more likely than females to report feelings of loss of self-esteem. Additionally, adult males were more likely to report real or perceived loss related to being the main income-earner in the family.

Decrease in household wealth was due to an absence of adult male income earners, increased health-care expenditures, and sometimes the additional purchase of labor for farm work that would normally have been carried out by the injured male. While men generally account for the greatest percentage of UXO-related morbidity, the burden of care primarily falls on females, with both men and women reporting changes in traditional gender roles as a result of either themselves or a family member sustaining a UXO injury. Both male and female children may drop out of school either as a result of a UXO injury to themselves or to a family member. In the case of a family member being injured, children are also likely to take on additional household tasks.

A large bomb is hoisted through the bush to be taken away  and destroyed making the village a safer place to live. Phanop village,  Khamouane province, Lao PDR.
A large bomb is hoisted through the bush to be taken away and destroyed making the village a safer place to live. Phanop village, Khamouane province, Lao PDR.

Access to both emergency and post-trauma health care did not appear to be gender-biased; rather, it was related to household wealth and knowledge of health-care services available, especially post-trauma health care. Decisions on whether or not to seek health care were reported to be taken cooperatively within the household and sometimes in consultation with village heads. From a gender perspective, if economic status is a key determinant of one’s ability to get health care, then it can be assumed that women are more likely not to seek health care since they generally have weaker socioeconomic position and fewer assets. Furthermore, it was suggested that widowed men are more likely to remarry than widowed women, and thus it may be harder for widowed women to regain the labor, financial and emotional support of a family network that would come with remarriage. When a UXO injury leaves wives widowed, they may need additional and long-term support. The assessment did not look at different ethnic customs related to marriage and remarriage; these considerations should be included in any future studies since an understanding of ethnic customs would inform an inclusive approach to long-term survivor assistance.

In terms of land use, men and women access and use land in different ways, resulting in different pre- and post-clearance impacts. Access to potable water, for example, can significantly reduce the time female adults and children spend on both water collection and boiling water for safe consumption. Road and bridge construction, allowing for year-round access to villages, also appeared to have a gender dynamic. For example, men reported increased opportunities in laboring saying, “It is much easier to go to work as a laborer; we go and do construction work, … and sometimes we will buy clothes to then come back and sell them in the village.”10 In contrast, women derive income from improved access to the market saying, “Every Wednesday we go to the market in the town. We sell vegetables, chickens, onions and eggs.”9 The women reported that this money remained in their possession and was used to buy bicycles for their children, medicine, rice to eat; fix their house; or buy clothes for the family. Access to markets can also act as an incentive to move away from employment in the scrap-metal industry.

A MAG Community Liaison team member records the position  of an unexploded artillery shell reported by a village head man. Xieng Khouang  province, Lao PDR.
A MAG Community Liaison team member records the position of an unexploded artillery shell reported by a village head man. Xieng Khouang province, Lao PDR.

Intrinsically linked to post-clearance benefits is the process by which land is identified and prioritized for a clearance intervention and the handover process. In this assessment, women rarely reported being involved or consulted, and they admitted to knowing little about the prioritization process and selection criteria.

Few women reported being aware or part of any sort of handover ceremony and given the clearance criteria. There were also evident misconceptions related to the area cleared, depth of clearance and appropriate land use. This discrepancy was even more evident in villages where Lao was not the first language and/or where a number of villages had been combined into one large administrative unit, which meant that in order to attend a village meeting, villagers had to travel far distances. MAG program recipients were a striking exception to this trend, with over 80 percent of recipients—male and female—reporting being involved in and understanding the process. This fact was attributed to MAG’s community-liaison approach, which actively seeks to engage men and women in its activities.

Regarding MRE, while attempts have been made to make the delivery mode of MRE messages more community-based and inclusive, MRE messages continue to be generic, rather than targeting specific gender-based risk behaviors. Messages continue to emphasize risk avoidance rather than minimization, primarily targeting mid- to low-risk groups and are therefore unlikely to influence changes in risk-taking behaviors. On the whole, MRE sessions were seen as being important for all community members with males and females reporting equal access.

MRE was reported as frequently being delivered to mixed-gender groups; this is a concern because a large percentage of women reported not feeling comfortable or confident talking in meetings where men are also present. Children were seen as being particularly vulnerable to both intentional and non-intentional exposure to UXO, especially boys and male adolescents, and were identified by respondents as an important target group for MRE activities. Within the household, passing on MRE messages to children was seen as a joint responsibility. For example one respondent said, “Both, husband and wife tell children about the dangers of UXO. It is important for everyone to warn the children.”10

Within Lao PDR, a total of only 20 percent of the staff included in the survey are women employed within the sector. In MAG–Lao, for example, 33 percent of the staff is female and they are mostly employed in operations rather than support or administrative roles. While no specific barriers to female employment were identified, the assessment only interviewed women employed by a humanitarian mine-action operator, and it is possible that there are barriers for older women or women that were not identified by the assessment. Crucially, few women are employed in middle- or senior-management roles with three key issues emerging:

  1. Most female staff are young, unmarried (and given the Lao social context, childless), while most male staff are older and married (and in the Lao social context, have children).
  2. A significantly lower percentage of female staff was likely to have completed primary school education when compared to men.
  3. Female staff have generally been employed in the sector for a considerably shorter time than men.

These points are likely to affect women’s ability to progress to management levels within the sector and, perhaps not surprisingly, there are significantly more men than women in management roles.

The assessment suggested that if we are serious about fulfilling the objectives of mine action as articulated in the International Mine Action Standards,11 an understanding of gender and how it interacts with UXO/mine-action processes in Lao PDR is crucial. Further, the assessment showed that, to a large degree, female voices are absent from the UXO/mine-action process in Lao PDR and rarely do current approaches actively support and create an enabling environment for equitable participation or transfer of knowledge. An exception to this was observed in villages where MAG had worked, and this was attributed mainly to MAG’s community-liaison approach.


MAG began by asking if gender is really relevant for mine action, and how it can add value to our work given our core business is landmine and UXO removal. As the literature review illustrated, mine action has developed from being an intervention implemented largely in isolation from other relief efforts to one that is increasingly linked to national post-conflict poverty eradication and long-term development goals. Reframing mine action within the broader development discourse necessitates an understanding of poverty and its different dimensions (including gender) if mine action is going to make any meaningful contribution. This assessment has shown that in Lao PDR, while there is a degree of male and female participation, to a large extent, women’s voices are absent from the UXO-action process. Furthermore, current practices do not ensure that women are adequately informed about their rights to participate in decisions that affect them and their development.

To answer the question about what gender mainstreaming means for mine action, the assessment here suggests that, in Lao PDR at least, it means operators have an obligation to ensure program recipients are empowered. Initial steps in this process will include training in gender awareness, attitudinal shifts, and developing mechanisms that ensure an inclusive and participatory approach to all mine-action interventions. The United Nations gender guidelines12 provide a useful starting point for this strategy. Engaging downstream development partners from the outset and ensuring that their plans also take into account a gender analysis are essential. The community-liaison approach taken by MAG also provides a way forward and has the potential to empower mine- and UXO-affected communities.

Finally, operators need to be held accountable and take steps toward deliberately promoting an inclusive approach to mine/UXO action. The tendency to cast mine-action operators as passive service providers to downstream development partners neatly shifts responsibility for gender mainstreaming to partners and does a disservice to the sector and to the communities we serve. Mine-action service providers can and must engage in a constructive dialogue with partners to promote an equitable spread of benefits within affected communities. Ultimately, gender is a performance issue. Ignoring gender builds ineffectiveness in achieving the overall goals of mine action to contribute to overall improvements in the well-being and socioeconomic development of mine- and UXO-affected communities. JMA icon


Durham HeadshotJo Durham, previously MAG’s Country Programme Manager in Lao PDR, is a doctoral candidate at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia. Her research is supported by MAG and will focus on evaluating post-clearance impacts.


  1. United Nations. (2003) International Mine Action Standards, 04.10, Edition 2, 1 January 2003, Standard 3.124, Accessed 10 October 2008.
  2. Editor’s Note: Some organizations consider mines and ERW to be two separate entities, since they are regulated by different legal documents (the former by the Ottawa Convention and Amended Protocol II of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the latter by CCW Protocol V). However, since mines are explosive devices that have similar effects to other ERW and it is often impossible to separate the two during clearance operations, some in the community have adopted a "working definition" (as opposed to a legal one) of ERW in which it is a blanket term that includes mines, UXO, abandoned explosive ordnance and other explosive devices.
  3. On 18 Sept. 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 55/2, the United Nations Millennium Declaration. At the United Nations Millennium Summit, world leaders agreed to a set of time-bound and measurable goals and targets for combating poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women. Placed at the heart of the global agenda, they are now called the Millennium Development Goals. The Summit’s Millennium Declaration also outlined a wide range of commitments in human rights, good governance and democracy. Accessed 10 October 2008
  4. For more information on the Lao PDR’s National Growth and Poverty Eradication Strategy, please visit for a full copy of the text. Accessed 10 October 2008.
  5. Chant, Sylvia (2008) “The ‘Feminisation of Poverty’ and the ‘Feminisation’ of Anti-Poverty Programmes: Room for Revision?” Journal of Development Studies, 44:2, 165–197.
  6. Asian Development Bank (2002) Socio-legal Status of Women in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand  (Manila: ADB).
  7. Punch, K.F., Mixed methods and evaluative criteria in Introduction to Social Research: Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches, K.F. Punch, Editor. 2005, Sage Publications: London. p. 234–243.
  8. Patton, M.Q., Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods. 3rd ed. 2002, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  9. UNICEF (2006) UXO Risk Education Needs Assessment. MAG, AusAID, CDC, Lao Youth Union.
  10. Actual responses from those who took the MAG survey; Assessment of Gender Perspectives in UXO Action in the Lao PDR, MAG/UNDP March 2008, Vientiane.
  11. United Nations Mine Action Service (2003). New York: UNMAS. International Mine Action Standards. IMAS online: Accessed 21 October 2008.
  12. The U.N. Gender Guidelines for Mine Action can be found online at Accessed 10 October 2008.

Contact Information

Jo Durham
Ph.D. candidate
International Health Associate Lecturer at the Centre for International Health
Centre for International Health
Curtin University of Technology
Perth / Western Australia, 6845