SRI LANKA: Women Clear Sri Lanka's Landmine Legacy

Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Southern Asia
Sri Lanka
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

Valmathi Jegadas is a different sort of mine clearer to the testosterone-fuelled explosives specialists portrayed in the 2008 Oscar-winning Hollywood hit, The Hurt Locker. A farmer's wife in northern Sri Lanka, Jegadas, 37, earns 200 dollars a month risking her life, and she admits being scared each time she steps into the minefields that are a legacy of the island's long and bloody civil war.
"This is the best-paying job in my village," Jegadas, who has three children, told AFP, adding that her mother and husband were both killed in 2007 by artillery attacks. Since joining the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) nearly a year ago, Jegadas says she has disabled more than 700 mines in Mannar district.
She works along former defence lines of the separatist Tamil Tigers, the rebel guerrilla force who fought the government for decades before being finally defeated in May last year.
Increasingly, international humanitarian organisations are training women to find and defuse mines.
"Women carry the burden after the war in most homes. They want the money, and they don't take short-cuts when clearing mines," said Nigel Peacock, a technical advisor for FSD in Mannar.
"Demining is probably one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, but these ladies are very committed. They do a better job than the boys."
The government's social services ministry estimates the war-torn north and east regions of Sri Lanka are home to some 90,000 war widows.
"Over 50 percent of female-headed homes are single parents under 30 years of age supporting their own and extended families," said Visaka Dharmadasa, director of the Association for War-Affected Women.
With most post-war jobs in fisheries, construction or farming, women have few options for a steady income.
"And demining pays well. It is considered a high-status, respectable job, unlike poultry-raising," said Imelda Sukumar, government agent for the district of Mullaittivu.
Wearing heavy body armour, a ballistic face-shield and helmet, and carrying their tools, each day they crawl into minefields laid in jungle shrubs and muddy trenches.
Pushparani Thavaratnam, 38, is another woman prepared to take the risk due to the financial rewards and a sense of helping her community recover after the war.
"If I tell you I don't get scared, then I'm lying," she told AFP after defusing a rusty anti-personal mine with her bare hands.
"The fear is still there. It's impossible to clear all the mines. Every bomb I remove maybe helps save 10 people or maybe just one," said Thavaratnam, whose pay cheque feeds her husband, two teenage sons and mother.
The Sri Lankan military estimates more than a million landmines and other unexploded devices were planted in the last few years of the war, threatening the lives of civilians who are now returning to their villages.
The army runs the largest de-mining operation, while organisations like FSD, the Mine Action Group and the Halo Trust are also working in Sri Lanka.
But the international effort is running into budget problems less than 18 months after a massive military offensive finally wiped out the Tigers.
The United Nations estimates it takes only three dollars to lay a mine, and 1,000 dollars to remove one.
FSD is short of two million dollars to maintain its annual nine million dollar budget for Sri Lanka this year as donors scale back operations.
"Key areas like residential zones and wells have been cleared, but there's still plenty more mines out there. We are running out of funds to put more deminers on the ground," said Peacock.
The need to clear mines is increasing as those who were displaced by the violence try to settle back into their previous lives.
"The military had a pattern of laying mines, there are maps available. But the Tigers haphazardly laid mines," said Major General Ronny Bohoran, a former military officer who now works for FSD.
The government's military spokesman Major General Ubaya Medawela agrees, saying that "landmines are scattered all over" which makes clearance "a difficult and expensive task."
He says that more than 2,000 square kilometres (700 square miles) of land still need to be demined.
Despite all the sophisticated safety equipment, the effort has a human cost with a French deminer and two young boys among those killed this year. The military estimates over 700 mine deaths since 2003.
"During the war I used to think what if a rocket kills me? I didn't want to die," said Morine Aswine, 25, who supports her widowed mother and younger sister.
Having lost her father to a roadside mine in 2008, Aswine has cleared mines in Mannar since February.
"People are returning to their villages more quickly than we are removing mines," she said. "Now I fear if we don't get enough aid money, we won't be able to remove all mines and people will get hurt for years to come."