In past decades, only men were involved in work to clear mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO). But now many women are doing the job and even leading such teams.

As of November 30 this year, there were 2,309 demining personnel, of whom 647 are women. So what inspired them to take on such dangerous jobs and work alongside the men?

Cambodia Self Help Demining (CSHD) executive director Sophin Sophary and women officials of Halo Trust Cambodia (HTC) told The Post that both sexes were equal in social work despite the dangers. Considering women to be weak and unable to handle mine clearance smacks of discrimination, they said.

Born into a poor farming family in Kok Thloak Krom commune’s Korkoh village in Siem Reap province’s Chi Kraeng district, Sophary said she volunteered to serve the CSHD in 2009 after graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting despite her parents’ and siblings’ objections.

Trained in mine clearance and UXO techniques for eight years and having carried out fieldwork, she was later appointed an executive director of the organisation.

“My childhood dream was to see Cambodians, especially children kept safe. They should be able to run and play, free of the dangers of mines and UXOs,” she said.

On what inspired her to work in the sector, Sophary said in 1992, she and her friends spotted a partly buried mine on a sidewalk at the Krabei Riel Primary School in her home village.

She was eight years old then and unaware of the dangers that mines posed. As she and a few friends prepared to dig the mine out to play with it, a military officer arrived at the scene and warned them not to touch it.

Sophary said in 1997, a family of seven in her village were travelling in a home-made truck which ran over an anti-tank mine, causing an explosion which left them with minor and serious injuries.

The same year, a youth picked up a UXO from a rice field and started playfully pounding on it. As he did so, it exploded, instantly killing him and two others.

“I was very scared at the time and determined that when I grew up, I would contribute to preventing such cases in my village. This is what caused me to go against my parents and siblings and do this work,” she said.

However, not all Cambodian women who serve in the sector had Sophary’s childhood determination.

Run Soktoeur, 30, who was named as an outstanding staff of HTC told The Post that due to difficulties in her family’s finances, she dropped out of school at Grade 4 to initially work at cassava and corn plantations in Pailin province.

In 2004, a year before working in the demining sector, her friend, Saly, sustained serious injuries after stepping on a mine while digging for bamboo shoots. She died on the way to hospital.

After that incident, Soktoeur and her parents returned to her home province in Leach commune’s Kroch Thma village in Pursat province’s Phnom Kravanh district.

“My family’s situation at the time was extremely hard since we had no farmland to grow crops. In 2015, HTC recruited me to work in its mines and UXO research division with a decent salary and many other benefits.

“I am very happy to work for HTC as it does humanitarian work that has gained the recognition and support of the international community. Also, the job pays much better than being a worker on cassava and corn plantations,” she said.

HTC’s head of mobile mine research and UXO clearance, Mao Chanthol, 32, has a similar reason as Soktoeur’s.

She said several mine explosions in Thma Puok province’s Thma Puok district between 1979 and 1997 caused her to panic and consider mine detection and destruction work as extremely dangerous.

But in 2012, Chanthol began working for HTC to provide for her family since she had little education and had always been a poorly paid farm help.

In 2018, national and international specialists provided much-needed training, and she was reassigned to carry out research work and destroy mines in the fields.

Today, she is no longer afraid of the work and said she enjoys detecting and destroying mines and UXOs.

“The detection and the destruction of mines and UXOs make me feel as though I am contributing something important to my countrymen. And each time we safely remove a mine or UXO, we are saving lives.

“It’s not only the men who can do this work but women too. And that is important to know,” she said.

Now, with over 10 years of experience, Chanthol was appointed HTC’s head of mobile mine research and UXO clearance.

On December 8, she led the working group to destroy two Russian M-122mm bombs which were detected in Kokmon commune’s Tamoan Senchey village in Oddar Meanchey province’s Banteay Ampil district.

However, Chanthol said women encountered work challenges and problems such as during their monthly periods and the initial stages of pregnancy.

That apart, men and women face issues when mines are deep in the forest, and when travelling on bad roads. In the dry season, the land is hard and it becomes difficult to clear mines and UXOs. In rainy seasons, the land is soft and poses obstacles to the clearance work.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a lot of farmlands were abandoned due to the abundance of mines and UXOs which endangered lives and caused much suffering to thousands of Cambodians.

The Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA) data shows that from 1979 to November this year, a total of 64,915 Cambodians had died from mines and UXOs. Of the number, 58,669 were men, women (6,183) and children (63).

Coordinated mine and UXO clearance work has begun in 1992.

The CMAA has so far completed clearing mines on 2,102sq km. It has destroyed 1,093,651 antipersonnel mines, 25,457 anti-tank mines, and 2,875,870 explosive remnants of war.

There remains another 2,156sq km land with mines and UXOs that have yet to be cleared. Of the number, 836sq km contain mines while 742sq km have cluster bombs and 578sq km have explosive remnants of war.

There are eight mine clearance units including the CMAC, the National Centre for Peacekeeping Forces, Mines and Explosive Remnants of War, The Engineering division of the Ministry of National Defence, HTC, the Mines Advisory Group, CSHD, the Norwegian People’s Aid, and Apopo.

These organisations are actively fulfilling their missions to remove the remaining mine-contaminated land and plantations for the sake of people’s wellbeing and development in Cambodia.