Afghanistan’s first all-women demining team — inaugurated in 2018 by the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) — provides women with increased financial independence, opening doors for a range of careers, while simultaneously making the country a safer place one mine at a time.
The $50,000 pilot program has two primary goals. The first is to equip women with the necessary training and skills to clear their communities of the deadly remnants of decades of war. One of the most mined countries in the world, 40 years of war has left Afghanistan devastated. Almost 700 square-miles of Afghan soil remains contaminated with mines and other explosives, including artillery shells, mortars and cluster munitions.
“We are struggling to handle significant increases in the number of minefields in Afghanistan,” explains UNMAS Country Director Patrick Fruchet.
He says all of the country’s 34 provinces had been mined, though no maps of their locations exist and there are no records of how many new mines continue to be put in the ground. The international community is estimated to have spent around $1.5 billion on mine clearance projects in Afghanistan over the past 30 years, but only one of the country’s provinces has been declared mine-free.
Second, the program provides women with an opportunity to challenge Afghanistan’s pervasive gender roles and thrive in a new and challenging profession. Demining offers women increased financial independence and, in many cases, has opened doors for them to study for a diverse range of careers, including business and law, options that would have been out of reach without the financial benefits demining provides.
The youngest member of the 40-woman demining team is Zarah Atayee, who is 21 years old and has been working as a deminer for about five months. Both of Atayee’s parents are illiterate, and the burden of contributing to family finances was placed on her shoulders at an early age. In previous years, Atayee’s father worked as a guard with one of the men’s demining crews, but when he was not rehired, Atayee decided to submit her own application for a position on the new all-women demining team.
Few full-time positions are available to women like Atayee, and even with the extreme dangers associated, demining’s $400 per month salary — about four times what she would make in a civil society job — was too good to pass up.
Although Atayee takes pride in her work and her ability to support her family, she has plans for her future that lie beyond demining. She is saving money to get a bachelor’s degree in business and then start her own clothing design company.
Many other women from the group are also supporting their families while studying for careers they hope to pursue in the future. For example, Jamila, age 34 — the oldest of the group — is the sole breadwinner for her family of five, yet she finds time to study in the evenings, with the goal of becoming a lawyer.
Thanks in part to their and the women’s efforts, the UN estimates that by late October the Bamiyan province of Afghanistan will be declared officially clear of landmines and other explosives. All formerly contaminated land will be returned to the community, and the majority of it will be used for Bamiyan’s main industry: agriculture.
With the clearance of their home province almost complete, members of the demining team will soon leave their positions in the minefield to travel to other provinces where they will draw on their expertise to train new groups of women deminers across the country.
To date, only 40 Afghan women have been trained as deminers, but UNMAS plans to increase the scope and scale of the program in coming years.
Sources: The Telegraph 10/14/19; Foreign Policy Magazine 10/8/19