World | Sri Lanka

Women clean up the dangerous legacy of Sri Lankan civil war

Several who lost husbands take on job of removing landmines

  • Reuters
  • Published: 00:00 October 8, 2011
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Reuters
  • A woman working for the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) digs out a landmine in a mine field in Kannaddi, located in Mannar district in Sri Lanka.

Mannar, Sri Lanka: Wearing a visor and a protective vest over grey fatigues tucked into black military boots, former housewife S. Dishanty crawls on her hands and knees through dense bush, slowly inching forward and methodically scanning the ground.

A year ago, this 23-year-old Sri Lankan woman was looking after her elderly parents and young son in their war-devastated village. Nowadays, she searches for an instrument of that destruction: landmines.

"My husband went missing during the war. My family and I lived in a camp for displaced people ... when we returned home after the fighting, everything was destroyed," Dishanty said in a cleared patch of a mine field in Sri Lanka's north-western district of Mannar.

Dishanty is part of a small number of women in post-war Sri Lanka who are taking on the risky role of clearing up the legacy left from a conflict which lasted a quarter of a century — and changing age-old views in this conservative and patriarchal, largely Hindu Tamil community.

"I had to find a job to support my family. This job gives me an income and has made people proud of me. "The Indian Ocean island is in its third year of peace after government forces defeated the separatist Tamil Tigers in May 2009, but the threat of landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXOs) lies buried under swathes of agricultural and forest land, as well as some villages.

After almost ten years of the army and aid groups "de-contaminating" the island, reports of casualties are dropping. According to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, there were six deaths in 2009 compared with 11 the year before. But experts say there are hundreds of thousands more mines, mainly in the north of the country, which could take another decade to clear.

In an environment where skills are scarce, funding low and pressure high to clear farmland to restart cultivation, women like Dishanty — survivors of the violence — are stepping forward.

"These women work on the front line of the humanitarian demining effort in Sri Lanka," said Nigel Robinson, country programme manager for the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD), which counts 75 women among its 750 mine-clearers. Aid workers estimate Asia's longest-running modern war left behind as many as 90,000 war widows or women whose husbands just disappeared.

"Many of these ladies head their households — their husbands are missing or were killed in the war — so this is an opportunity for them to earn money to take back to their families," Robinson said.

As displaced communities return home and begin to rebuild, many women are being forced to change from their traditional roles as carers to providers for families with as many as six or seven mouths to feed.

With a scarcity of skills and jobs in this war-ravaged region, opportunities offered by organisations like FSD — although seen as dangerous and against the traditional view of a woman's role in this society — have been welcome.

Among the three main demining groups, there are now about 200 women mine-clearers.

The women, like the men, attend a camp for three weeks learning about the types of explosives and landmines they are likely to encounter, plus the skills and techniques required to search and mark landmines.

In the minefields of Mannar, mine-clearers work in searing temperatures in heavy protective clothing, using shears to cut through the overgrown grassland which was once paddy field.

The work is painstaking and stressful — the mine-clearers systematically scrutinise the ground inch by inch, with the potential of a deadly or dismembering explosion ever-present.

But the women say the job, with a salary of $250 (Dh918.28) a month and full insurance, provides not only income but also respect, even if they have to spend three weeks at a time away from home.

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