Gender in Community Consultations

by Hilde Vandeskog Wallacher [ International Peace Research Institute, Oslo ]

Landmine removal within Cambodia has been an important, unsolved problem for many years. This article focuses on mine-action strategies for gender mainstreaming in the community consultations carried out in rural, mine-affected areas in Cambodia.1

Cambodia has one of the most developed mine-action sectors in the world. A number of actors operate here, and mine clearance has been carried out since 1992.2 While being limited by political factors as well as resources, the Cambodian mine-action sector has a high level of integration among various national bodies and nongovernmental organizations operating in the country. Logically, a well-established sector in which multiple organizations with differing mandates, perspectives and priorities are used to aid cooperation is more ready and able to absorb new trends and ideas and to establish frameworks for implementation.

Gender Awareness among Mine-action Actors

Several mine-action organizations in Cambodia have implemented gender strategies in their work, some more comprehensively than others. These include the Mines Advisory Group, Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority and Cambodian Mine Action Centre. There are also organizations working on aspects other than mine clearance such as the International Women’s Development Agency and Australian Volunteers International.

These organizations all carry out or assist in carrying out community consultations in anticipation of a clearance project. These strategies are particularly interesting because they go to the core of why gender mainstreaming is important. Community consultations are a vital part of the prioritization done before a given area is selected for clearance. Usually consultations involve one or two people from, or hired by, the clearance organization. The consultants hold one or more open meetings in the affected village, encouraging locals to speak up about where they perceive mines to be located and which areas they perceive as being more urgent to clear. The locals will draw these areas on maps that are then used as a foundation for the planning of the clearance operation. The gender aspects of these consultations are particularly important for several reasons and touch upon the key aspects of the importance of gender mainstreaming both in mine action and more generally.

Nith Nary is a widow with two children.  “I have known many people, including my uncle, who have stood on mines. My work  is important. There are people living here in the minefield and we must save  them.”
Nith Nary is a widow with two children. “I have known many people, including my uncle, who have stood on mines. My work is important. There are people living here in the minefield and we must save them.”
All photos ©Sean Sutton / MAG]

Rural, Mine-affected Communities

Labor and livelihood responsibilities in rural Cambodian societies are generally divided across gendered lines, as is common in many rural societies. The men are more likely to be involved in activities taking place far from the house, such as cultivating the land and tending to larger animals. This latter responsibility is usually shared with young boys who herd the cattle, a very risky occupation in a mine-contaminated area. Women traditionally work in and around the house, especially after they have children. The work includes responsibilities related to the household such as fetching water and firewood. According to Heng Rettana, the Deputy Director at CMAC, “These are the people most at risk because they have a duty to bring income to their families. And they live in mine-affected areas … they have to walk into the minefields to collect firewood, water, food and so on for their families.”

Men are also more likely than women to be involved in wage employment. They are thus more likely to travel to and from work, an activity that entails significant risks in a mine-contaminated area.3 As in many other conflict and post-conflict situations, there is a disproportionate number of female-headed households due to the death or injury of the male head of the household. These households tend to be the poorest of the poor in rural Cambodian communities and may be involved in risk-prone behavior because of their limited livelihood options.

The impact of mine contamination in most cases depends on the structure of agricultural work and the presence of alternative livelihood options in the given area. The gender implication is thus obvious once the division of labor and responsibilities is recognized. Both men and women need to be heard in questions of mine-clearance prioritizations, not just because it is right, but because it is necessary for the clearance priorities to be made on a solid foundation and reflect actual needs. If in a village only the perspectives of the men are heard, the prioritization is likely to be made on insufficient and unbalanced evidence, leaving important areas still dangerously contaminated. Knowledge of the whereabouts of the mines is often based on word of mouth and experiences of injury. Most people in a village are likely to be aware of any severe accidents having taken place in the recent past, and these areas are likely to be high on the list of areas prioritized for clearance.

25 year-old Kheun Sokhon is employed as a deminer ridding the land of the hidden legacy that nearly took her life in 2002 when she stood on a landmine. Here, she takes her leg off during a rest break. Over 25 percent of MAG's deminers are amputees.

A Development Perspective

Keeping in mind these differences in perspective based on gender, we can identify two key conceptualizations of the gendered implications of a mine-affected community that corresponds to the general outline of gender-divided labor. First, there is what can be called the contribution factor in which the local population’s rights to influence the mine-action process is acknowledged by the authorities and the mine-action organizations. Second, there is the more commonly emphasized benefit factor in which the importance of the benefit of the mine action being equally distributed among the population is stressed. Under each of these there are, of course, a number of different ways in which mine action relates to gender considerations.

The contribution factor can be understood as a person’s right to take part in the process in which he or she is a stakeholder. It relates to the right to influence and be heard in processes relevant to a person’s core interests. In the context of mine action, this factor is particularly relevant in the consultation processes. The fact that these consultations exist reflects an acknowledgement of the fact that effective problem-solving requires that the people closest to the problem be the ones defining it. Incorporating locals should specifically inform choices on which areas should be the first priority for a clearance operation, where clearance is less important and where there is a need for urgent risk-reducing measures to be instated. The need to include locals is also at the core of the community-based participatory approach to mine action discussed by Ruth Bottomley4 in an International Peace Research Institute, Oslo report from 2003. One of her key contentions is that there is a tendency for the mine-action sector to approach the clearance task from a perspective very different from that of the local community. The mine-action sector's technical approach is often based on quantified goals with little regard for the social implications of their presence. By taking a purely technical approach to mine action, organizations risk being unable to take advantage of the informal, local knowledge about the mine situation including previous accidents and so on. Also, by only consulting with one homogenous strata of the population—i.e., the men—they risk developing a skewed and insufficient perspective of the problem.

The benefit factor applies to mine action when it comes to the right of individuals to benefit from mine action. Some examples include benefits from employment, the return to land, more widespread medical aid and so forth. It applies to some of the same elements of mine action as the contribution factor; however, it is a different way of conceptualizing the rights and positions of the local communities in relation to the mine action being carried out. While this is an interesting perspective, this article is primarily concerned with the contribution factor when conceptualizing the role of gender in mine action.

Sokhon at home with her daughter,  Sreymao.
Sokhon at home with her daughter, Sreymao.

Practice and Experiences

In Cambodia there are three clearance operators currently active: Cambodian Mine Action Centre, Mines Advisory Group and The HALO Trust. To various extents, all three organizations involve the local communities in their planning processes. In terms of gender mainstreaming in their approach to community consultations for mine clearance, MAG–Cambodia5 stands as a good example. MAG–Cambodia’s approach is fairly comprehensive and uses sophisticated efforts toward realizing the potential of this practice. This assertion is based not necessarily on the extent to which gender-mainstreaming efforts have been carried out within the structure of MAG–Cambodia, though that has admittedly been done extensively. Rather, there is acknowledgement within the strategies of MAG–Cambodia that gender mainstreaming is not an endeavor to be entered into in isolation, with a simple view of improving the position of women within the work carried out by the organization.

MAPU, CMAC and AVI(Australian Volunteers International): The Mine Action Planning Units are bodies that operate locally to collect information for planning clearance of mine-affected areas. They are the responsibility of CMAA which was established by the Cambodian government in 2002 to handle coordination and strategy at the central, bureaucratic level. Interviews with CMAA representatives make it clear that gender awareness is certainly present at the CMAA; however, it manifests itself in a fashion that does not reflect the core concerns of mainstreaming–namely, the goal of comprehensive, nondiscriminatory mine action where benefits are equally accessible to the community. The views presented by CMAA instead reflect an ad-hoc approach to the gender mainstreaming process that can be said to represent gender without mainstreaming. The main focus is on employment of women in the central section of the organization, but the importance of challenging the consequences of traditional gender roles on the impact of mine action is not reflected in its strategies. CMAA identifies this lack of further gender-mainstreaming strategies as a result of resource shortage, which manifests itself in limited abilities to seek broader community consultations and to diversifying approaches to villagers based on gender or age.

Both CMAC and mine-action staff from AVI concede that women normally would not speak up in mixed-sex community consultation meetings. If they were encouraged to do so, they would often only refer to something said previously by a man and voice support for that statement. On some occasions, however, women would mention concerns not raised in the meeting in an informal setting afterwards.6 The AVI and CMAC staff alike suggested this action was rooted in traditional Cambodian male chauvinism, where women are not perceived as being on par with men intellectually–a common conception that is reinforced by the fact that women generally receive a lower level of education than men.7 The IWDA, which has been an active with the national mine-action authorities, also criticizes the way in which these community consultations have been carried out by the provincial MAPUs.8

The MAPUs were not at the time (April 2006) working with any clear strategies for ensuring that the attendance and, significantly, outcome of the community consultations were representative. Kristen Rasmussen, Gender Project Coordinator with the IWDA (see related article on page X), held similar views as AVI and CMAC staff, that it would not be enough to encourage women to participate in these meeting if there is no strategy to ensure that they share their views and concerns. It is important, as IWDA points out, to keep in mind that this devaluation of the importance and ability of women to contribute and share their views prevails not only among the male villagers attending the meetings, but among many of the staff from MAPU or from the operators heading the meetings.

Mines Advisory Group. One solution to the problem facing the MAPUs is the approach chosen by MAG–Cambodia, which holds separate meetings for men and women. MAG found that this method encouraged the women to discuss freely their experiences and concerns related to the mine contamination in their area. MAG also observed that men and women communicated significantly different information and preferences.

MAG–Cambodia sees gender mainstreaming as part of a bigger picture. The goal is to serve the population in the area where they operate with as little bias as possible. In other words, the organization approaches the rationale of gender mainstreaming from the opposite end of the norm.1 Instead of approaching gender mainstreaming from the perspective of gender politics, MAG approaches it from a perspective of coherence and an intrinsic principle of equality of treatment. This division may seem artificial; however, the point is whether gender mainstreaming is viewed as important because of gender issues alone or whether it holds relevance in the field of mine action in a broader perspective of acknowledging the need for a multi-dimensional approach to community liaisons. By identifying its role vis-à-vis the communities in which it operates as providing significant impacts beyond the mere removal of mines, it is possible to work toward results that are not only efficient in a purely technical perspective, but also in a development perspective.

MAG–Cambodia has had this approach to its role in Cambodia since it started working there in 1998. It has established a structure of community liaison teams, each consisting of one man and one woman, that are responsible for establishing and maintaining communication between MAG–Cambodia and local communities.1 These teams carry out pre-clearance consultations in which the communities share their knowledge about the whereabouts of the minefields as well as their needs in terms of clearance priorities. The teams make sure to consult a selection of men, women, boys and girls to cover as many differing perspectives as possible.

Donning the necessary protective  equipment.
Donning the necessary protective equipment.


Gender mainstreaming in the Cambodian mine-action sector is already fairly advanced. Several strategies are in place and the gender issue is on the national agenda with the establishment of the cross-sector gender working group under the auspices of the CMAA. However, several problems mar the effectiveness of these initiatives. First of all, “gender” seems to be synonymous with “women,” an unfortunate misconception often encountered when gender mainstreaming is on the agenda in many sectors. Second, instead of focusing on ensuring the equal access of women to benefits and influence in the section of mine action, the focus seems to be on finding female-specific aspects in the sector and nurturing these. For example, CMAA wants to target women for employment in the mine-risk education sector based on their conceived skills in teaching and communicating with children.

While this stereotype may be true based on traditional divisions of labor in communities, it does help the broader goals of gender mainstreaming. The approach is too narrow and does not reflect the necessity of ensuring women have equal access to benefits and influence. Instead, it takes a traditionalist view on the role of women and seeks to accommodate women into the mine-action work within the framework of these roles. Clearly, this acknowledgement of the particular skills and resources of the female side of the community is positive in and of itself and may certainly be an important part of the gender-mainstreaming process. However, if this is what the gender aspects of the mine-action strategies of the CMAA amounts to, it does not qualify as mainstreaming in the real meaning of the concept.

Some efforts are necessary to mend the gender gap in the efficiency of the community consultations. First, the issue of prejudice against women on the part of the mine-action staff needs to be addressed through gender training tailored to the domestic and local context. In Cambodia, earlier efforts at community consultations have shown that even if the organization in question invites women to the meetings and facilitates for their presence, women’s voices would still generally not be heard. Second, the fact that many of the women lack the skills and experience needed to get their views across needs to be acknowledged and ameliorated. This deficiency is often related to very specific skills needed, such as the ability to understand and draw maps, suggesting a need for creativity in the way consultations are carried out to ensure that women are able to express their views and to share their knowledge and experience without being hindered by their lack of specific skills. In a stable post-conflict situation such as Cambodia, mine clearance should and can be seen in a broader context of reconstruction, development and progress. This feat cannot be accomplished in a comprehensive manner without including a gendered component that is mainstreamed through all aspects of the work of the sector, including the cooperation with development organizations and private entities.

The community consultations are a good place to start, as they constitute a cross-cutting activity that is relevant to the practical efficiency of the clearance. Consultations also ensure a fairly equal distribution of benefits arising from clearance activities. Also, by acknowledging and seeking the advice and knowledge of local women, mine-action organizations help to challenge the existing gender biases and depreciation especially of women in rural Cambodia and also Cambodian society in general. The benefits of removing the obstacles for female participation and contribution to the rebuilding and development of a country should be self-evident, and successful gender mainstreaming in mine action needs to reflect this fact in all its strategies. JMA icon


Wallacher HeadshotHilde Vandeskog Wallacher is a researcher with the Assistance to Mine Affected Communities project at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, Norway. She holds a Master of Arts in human rights studies from the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights. She has previously published reports and conference papers on gender mainstreaming in mine action and is also conducting research on international regulations of arms trade.


  1. Wallacher, Hilde.“Gender mainstreaming in Mine Action – A Critical Background Analysis.” PRIO Paper, Oslo, 2007.
  2. “Cambodian Strategy and 2005–2009 Plan to Implement Article 5 of the Ottawa Convention.” Paper presented at the Mine Free World First Review Conference Nairobi, Kenya 29 November–3 December 2004.
  3. Gorman, Siobhan, Pon Dorina and Sok Kheng.“Gender and Development in Cambodia: An Overview”, Working Paper. Cambodia Development Resource Institute. June 1999: 45–46.
  4. Bottomley, Ruth. “Crossing the Divide. Landmines, Villagers and Organizations.” PRIO Report. January 2003.
  5. The author cannot testify to the central strategies of MAG, these arguments are thus made solely on the approach of the Cambodia office, headed by Rupert Leighton.
  6. Staff from AVI and CMAA. Interview by Hilde Wallacher. Phnom Penh, April 2007.
  7. World Bank and UNESCO found that 43.6 percent of pupils in primary schools are female, but only 35.6 percent in secondary school are female. Accessed 29 August 2008.
  8. Rasmussen, Kristen. Interview by Hilde Wallacher. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. April 2007.

Contact Information

Hilde Vandeskog Wallacher
Assistance to Mine Affected Communities Project
International Peace Research Institute, Oslo
Hausmansgate 7
N-0186 Oslo / Norway
Tel: +47 225 477 05