Innovation in Action: Brave Afghan Women Clear Landmines, Make History

By Susannah Rosenblatt on November 4, 2019

A team of women, cocooned in thick, powder-blue Kevlar vests and clear protective face shields fan out across the rugged, tawny mountains of Afghanistan’s Bamyan province. They sweep heavy metal detectors over the rocky soil. Kneeling, they painstakingly scrape sharp tools through the loose dirt. These brave women are defying their culture’s rigid gender norms, part of Afghanistan’s first all-female demining team. As they rid their communities of deadly, undetonated explosivesthe dangerous legacy of years of warthey forge a new path for women. 

AFGHAN WOMEN PIONEERS

This women-led demining effort, launched and funded by the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), is a milestone in 30 years of humanitarian mine action in Afghanistan. As these Afghan women clear dangerous explosives, they are also serving as powerful role models and decision makers. The program represents a new way the UN is working to advance multiple goals. It is part of the UN’s broader efforts to modernize and reform to better deliver for people around the world.

The UNMAS program offers Afghan women the chance to learn, work, and support their families in a deeply conservative country where the Taliban still has a presence. While there have been some advances on behalf of women’s rights, most women are still largely excluded from Afghanistan’s social, political, and economic life. An Amnesty International poll deemed Afghanistan, where 87% of women are illiterate and 70% to 80% face forced marriage, the worst place in the world to be a woman.

“Society treated us badly at first. It was a taboo to see girls [work] with men,” said deminer Fatima Amiri in an interview with UNMAS. “But my father believed in me and asked me to join deminers. Now, no one says that women are weak.” 

Mine removal projects are generally short-term. So the women deminers receive vocational training in fields including archeology, tourism, and business, providing a stepping stone to long-term careers. To ensure Afghan women’s voices continue to be heard, UNMAS requires as part of its grantmaking process that women be included in community discussions on how best to use territory newly cleared of explosives.

These path-breaking women conduct lifesaving work, and relish their independence and sense of purpose as they make their communities safer. They serve as a powerful symbol to their neighbors of what Afghan women can achieve. “I want to be an inspiration to the young girls in our society,” deminer Nekbakht Hassani told UNMAS. “I want girls to join our cause.”

Fourteen women deminers began work in 2018, clearing mines and educating villagers about the dangers of explosive devices after training from international demining experts through UNMAS. The team, which grew to 16 deminers and two paramedics, labors from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day, their tan jumpsuits and protective gear heavy in the midday sun. They have cleared mines and other explosives from 51,520 square meters of land so far, enabling local citizens to farm once again. The women are on track to make Bamyan province in central Afghanistan one of the first regions in the nation to be free of known mines.

“I chose to be a deminer because I wanted to serve my family and people, demine areas, and save people’s lives,” deminer Rabia Hassani told UNMAS.

 

DANGEROUS GROUND

Afghanistan remains one of the most heavily land-mined countries on Earth. The nation’s mine action program is one of the largest and best-established in the world, comprised of 46 humanitarian and commercial organizations and 7,000 employeesprimarily men. Since 1989, humanitarian workers have cleared more than 18 million explosive remnants of war, in addition to 738,120 anti-personnel mines and 30,300 anti-vehicle mines, according to UNMAS. More than three-quarters of known minefields and battle areas in Afghanistan have been cleared. Yet while nearly 3,000 Afghan communities are no longer threatened by landmines, about 1,500 communities remain at risk.

The continued hazard posed to civilians by explosives is grave: More than 1,400 Afghan civilians were killed or injured by landmines and explosive devices in 2018. Casualties from landmines have tripled since 2012, UNMAS reports. In the three decades of UNMAS’ humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan, some 30,000 people have been killed or injured by explosive devices. The responsibility of caring for those hurt by mines falls disproportionately on women. 

Beyond the devastating human cost, unrecovered mines hamper the development of critical infrastructure across the war-wracked nation, delaying needed construction of roads and airports. And the job of demining has grown increasingly difficult. Traditional approaches used to clear explosives from the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s do not work as well with newer, victim-operated improvised explosive devices such as those used by the Taliban. 

 

CREATING A SAFER AND MORE EQUITABLE WORLD

UNMAS has responded with creative solutions, empowering women as it makes communities safer. 

The agency informally engaged locals in Bamyan province around support for a women-led demining team. UNMAS then secured assistance from local government officials. UNMAS worked with the Danish Demining Group to recruit women participants, half of whom were previously unemployed. The unique women-led demining program in Afghanistan illustrates the diverse ways the UN partners with governments and local communities to promote peace and help vulnerable populations thrive. 

UNMAS is designed to respond nimbly to crisis situations as they flare up in unstable environments, with 3,000 employees across 18 countries and regions worldwide working to advance safety and development. Removing landmines moves people in war zones closer to a number of Sustainable Development Goals, including gender equality. When explosive hazards are removed, adults can go to work and cultivate land; children can learn at school; and plants can provide clean drinking water and reliable power.

In Afghanistan, UNMAS provides the government with technical support to mobilize resources around landmine removal. Joint efforts have helped educate thousands of Afghan civilians about explosive device safety, and removed aircraft bombs and rocket-propelled grenades from villages and schools. The nation is working to become free of landmines by 2023. Funding for this effort has stalled in recent years, so UNMAS advocates for support in eliminating land mines across Afghanistan and reintegrating victims of explosions back into society. 

After initial success, UNMAS aims to expand the all-women demining program beyond Bamyan province. Women will begin to help determine which hazardous areas to clear and participate in other aspects of demining work. UNMAS’ innovative vision will allow more Afghan women to experience the empowerment and fulfillment of deminer Masooma Qasimi: “Now we are very happy and proud,” she said in an interview with UNMAS. “Everyone thinks about us and supports us. I am appreciated by the society, and I feel honored.”

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