Handicap International has been performing humanitarian demining actions in countries affected by anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions for over 20 years. These demining and mine clearance activities aim to restore land and livelihoods to local people. Most accidents caused by explosive devices occur during daily activities such as harvesting and gathering food or collecting wood. Some farmers cultivate marked mine fields at the risk of their lives because they have no other way of feeding themselves, their family or community.
Devastated by a 30-year war of independence, followed by a civil war, Mozambique was once one of the most mined countries in the world. Handicap International has been demining this territory since 1998: “Mozambique has committed itself to completing its demining operations by 2014. But it’s important to keep up the pace,” explains demining programme manager Adérito Ismaël. “It’s not because the problem has almost been solved that we should abandon everything. On the contrary, people are starting to ignore the risks they are running.”
These operations are also vital for the socio-economic future of the country: mines and explosive remnants of war prevent fields from being farmed, infrastructure (roads, electric lines, railways, etc.) from being built and limit the circulation of goods and people. Tourism and foreign investment have also been hit simply by the fact that even the suspected presence of mines can act as a deterrent.
Demining is a long and difficult task requiring a large number of operators. To tackle this large-scale problem, Handicap International launched a major recruitment campaign in 2010. Many women put themselves forward for the work, long considered to be a man’s job. Dynamic and motivated, these women have proven that they are just as reliable as men in clearing their country and restoring land to local people.
Twelve women were recruited. They followed a 45-day training course before becoming operational. Each deminer needs to wear regulation protective clothing weighing four kilos. The temperature can rise as high as 40°C in Mozambique. Working conditions are therefore hard and the task dangerous. Demining requires full concentration, extreme precision and a lot of patience. One square metre of land can take hours to clear.
The deminers work in the field for ten days then take four days rest. The pace is intense but these women are proud of what they do. “75% of the population lives from the land. We’ve been hungry for years because we didn’t dare venture into the fields. When I was young, I saw too many people suffer injuries because they went out to cut manioc. I’m proud of the work I do for Handicap International,” explains Raufa, 21.
These women obviously feel fear but they have chosen to face up to that fear rather than risk stepping on a mine. They will get their reward the day this cleared land is restored to the local people. Rosa Maria, 26, explains more: “It’s really lovely when we give back the land, when the villagers can start farming again. Step by step, the land comes back to life, farming returns and people have enough to eat.”