NPA’s All-female Demining Team in Sudan

by Leah Young [ Mine Action Information Center ]

Norwegian People’s Aid’s commitment to gender mainstreaming in mine action is reflected by the organization’s present work in Sudan. This article looks at the successes of the country’s first all-female demining team, established in 2007, as well as at the larger cultural and practical considerations of women in demining.

Norwegian People’s Aid has always held the opinion that women should have equal employment rights to all jobs—including those in every aspect of demining.1 It has demonstrated this belief by involving women in many of its demining projects around the world. Past NPA projects that incorporated women in the demining process include clearance projects in Bosnia, Croatia, Iraq, Kosovo and Sri Lanka, all of which were successful. The positive feedback concerning female participation in these projects encouraged NPA to continue training women to take part in demining—even in its most recent project in war-torn southern Sudan.1

Female deminer at Limbe Bridge task, Lainya, Central Equatoria.
Female deminer at Limbe Bridge task, Lainya, Central Equatoria.
Photo courtesy of Jahle Auset
Mary Opani, team leader.
Mary Opani, team leader.
Photo courtesy of Jahle Auset

Female Demining in Sudan

NPA has been involved in mine clearance in Sudan since April 2004, when it established its first program in the nation, a traditional all-male team. Soon after, however, in 2005, training for the first female deminers in Sudan began, leading to the formation of the first all-female demining team in the country, which officially came together in 2007.1 The government of South Sudan is working on gender mainstreaming within its employment ranks, setting a target of having females serve as 25 percent of its agencies’ workforce. NPA’s mine-action programs in Sudan aimed for this gender-mainstreaming goal and made the 25-percent target a reality, assimilating women into every part of demining operations, including the operational and support departments.1

NPA did not take any special measures to recruit the women it trained. The recruitment of female staff was conducted within Yei County, Central Equatoria, where advertisements were posted around the town area. Applicants were interviewed and then screened by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army for security purposes. After that, successful candidates began a four-week basic demining course.1

Many advantages exist in facilitating all-female demining teams. First, avoiding mixed-gender teams addresses the practical concerns of deminers living together in a small working environment. Second, all-female demining teams ensure a “gender balance” within NPA’s demining programs, providing not only equal employment opportunities to the women, but also bringing female perspectives to the traditionally male-dominated field. All-women teams also create unique positions in local communities for women to be role models for others.1 NPA has not observed any drawbacks or weaknesses in these teams. Although the female teams may require slight increases in donor funding, to assist with the expenses associated with maternity leave, NPA says that donors “have responded very well.”1

The women of South Sudan. The culture of South Sudan is known for its conservative nature. Initially, this emphasis on tradition was seen as a potential cultural hindrance as the first all-female demining team was formed and women began to take on roles traditionally viewed as masculine.2 This traditional culture, however, has not been a deterrent to the process. The majority of the female deminers say that their involvement has not been discouraged, but rather that their friends and families have been very supportive of their involvement in mine clearance.2 Their participation in the program gives them not only an opportunity outside of the home to earn extra money for their families, but it also is “a source of pride for the women” as they help rebuild their nation after the country’s second civil war (1983–2005).2,3 The only issue that the NPA needed to take into account, they say, was to “respect the difference between the sexes,” by providing separate housing camps for the men and women when they were in the field demining away from home for up to six weeks at a time.1

In this region of southern Sudan, it is viewed as traditional for a woman to be married and raise a large family. Furthermore, since the end of the civil war, which led to the deaths of approximately two million people and the displacement of another four million citizens, there has been a sentiment in the region that Sudan needs to repopulate due to wartime losses.3 For these reasons, it is not uncommon for many of the women on the team to be pregnant while working.3 NPA has not let the high numbers of pregnancies and the resulting maternity leave stop it from utilizing the benefits of all-female demining teams. It has instead found ways in which to make the team function despite this challenge, since the benefits of an all-female team, such as being able to learn about and use female knowledge of a minefield, the ability to help support a family and the improved status of these women in the community, outweigh this one drawback. For instance, the first all-female team is made up of 35 women. This size is larger than a typical NPA demining team, taking into account the many women who may be on maternity leave.2

NPA has also developed a special program for its female deminers who become pregnant and require leave. In this program, if a female deminer is pregnant, she is automatically given a three-month maternity leave, which is used both before and after the birth. If necessary, for the woman’s comfort, health and safety, extra time can be allotted.1 After this point, NPA ensures that the woman is able to be with her child for six months by letting her work from the Logobero Base Camp near Yei, 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of the current demining operation in Morobo county. The NPA also takes advantage of this time by providing the women with important computer and skills training for the job.2 Throughout this entire period of three months’ leave and six months working at the base camp, NPA ensures the woman receives the same pay she would if she were demining on the field with the rest of the team.1

Clearing Mile 38. The team recently participated in the clearance of Mile 38 on the Yei-Juba road—a Line of Disengagement of some 100 hectares. This Mile 38 battlefield was “on the frontline in a decade’s long conflict”3 in Sudan. In the process of mine clearance in this dangerous stretch of land, the women cleared 15,845 square meters (4 acres) and removed 9 pieces of unexploded ordnance, 103 anti-personnel mines and 21 anti-tank mines.1 The Mile 38 clearance project took over a year, spanning from February 2007 to March 2008. The grueling clearance process involved the use of both manual and mechanical demining techniques, which included the use of the MineWolf.1 In June 2008 Mile 38 was handed over to the Sudanese government by the NPA, with farming and agriculture predicted as the use for the land.1

Minebelt at Mile 38, Ganji Payam, Juba.
Minebelt at Mile 38, Ganji Payam, Juba.
Photo courtesy of Charles Frisby

Statistics from the U.N. Mine Action Office in the region show that, there have been over 2,000 recorded civilian casualties and injuries from landmines laid during and since the civil war.3 The heavily mined land in this area has caused more than just death and injury to the people of Sudan. It has made trade and travel virtually impossible, destroyed farmers’ livelihoods and harmed communities throughout southern Sudan. For example, Mile 38 was once a part of a major trade route, but due to fear of landmines and conflict, it is virtually useless land now.3 The women of the team are working to restore their nation and bring an end to the fear that keeps communities from making use of the land.

Continued commitment to gender mainstreaming. NPA has found that in these war-torn communities it is typically women who are involved in gathering wood and water for their families in more remote locations. Due to their knowledge of these lesser-known areas, women have the most information in these rural communities regarding which areas are the most dangerous.2 These women, however, are typically an untapped resource of knowledge, since all-male teams go into these areas and speak mainly to the men from the communities about their knowledge of the mine threat in the area. Perhaps this all-women team will be able to speak to more women, accessing vital information that has not been found in the past.2

NPA’s commitment to incorporating women into the demining process continues to pay off. The first all-female demining team’s success in Sudan is just one example of this. Although it seemed that a traditional culture would get in the way, the team has been met with support by their friends and families. The potential issues of pregnancy and maternity leave have not hindered the team, but rather have provided an opportunity for NPA to develop a new program for new mothers. Furthermore, the team has recently finished clearing one of the most dangerous battlefields in the nation, Mile 38, providing communities with land for agriculture and trade. The team hopes to continue on this path, restoring communities and helping the country recover from a long war. JMA icon

Biography

Young headshotLeah Young has been working at the The Journal of Mine Action since January 2008. She is from Virginia Beach and attends James Madison University where she is pursuing an undergraduate degree in justice studies with a minor in Spanish.

Endnotes

  1. E-mail correspondence with Charles Frisby, Norwegian People’s Aid Program Manager. 29 May 2008.
  2. “Southern Sudan’s Female Deminers.” United Nations Mine Action Office Sudan. January/February 2008 Newsletter. http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900sid/SHIG-7D5CM2?OpenDocument. Accessed 25 July 2008.
  3. Wheeler, Skye. “Women Join Demining Charge in South Sudan.” 23 March 2008. Reuters. http://lite.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L2740043.htm. Accessed 25 July 2008.

Contact Information

Leah Young
Editorial Assistant
The Journal of ERW And Mine Action
Mine Action Information Center
E-mail: maic@jmu.edu

Charles Frisby
Program Manager
Norwegian People's Aid
Mine Action Sudan
Email: cfisby@sudan.npaid.org