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Cambodia: Girl power finds foothold in minefields

It may not look like it, but the team, run by Britain's Mine Advisory Group (MAG), are making history as the war-torn country's first, and probably only the world's second, all-female demining team.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2004 13:59 IST

Ing Sokhey and her colleagues like to look good for work. After all, keeping up appearances is important when you spend five days a week face down in a Khmer Rouge minefield.

"I always wear a bit of eyeliner and mascara. I want to look nice," says the pretty 25-year-old Cambodian, otherwise decked out in overalls, blast vest and Perspex helmet - the distinctly unfeminine garb of a deminer.

Around her, in a maze of bright red string marking out cleared from mined scrubland, 10 other women work away diligently with metal detectors and knives, searching for the mines, bombs and booby-traps left behind by years of civil war.

It may not look like it, but the team, run by Britain's Mine Advisory Group (MAG), are making history as the war-torn country's first, and probably only the world's second, all-female demining team.

Taking a quick break in the middle of their minefield, the women of Mine Action Team 12, as they are officially known, are not letting this rare example of 'girl power' in the still highly traditional southeast Asian nation, go to their heads.

"It's a good job, and it helps me look after my family," said Liat Chumbury, 45, whose husband was killed by a landmine in 1988. "In the beginning I was afraid, but one quickly gets used to it. I've been well-trained and I work carefully."

Cool Heads

After the fall of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in 1979, Cambodia had to endure nearly 20 more years of war as remnants of Pol Pot's ultra-Maoist guerrillas slugged it out with first Vietnamese then Cambodian government troops until 1998.

In the wake of a constantly shifting front line, millions of landmines, mostly of Soviet, Chinese or Vietnamese origin, and unexploded ordnance (UXO) are littered over much of the western stretches of the country.

"We laid so many mines during the war. The fighting was all over the place," said Khin Pha, a 50-year-old former Khmer Rouge soldier sitting under a tree near Ta Krouk. He, like many in the area, has only one leg.

In the huge clean-up, started in 1992, women have often shown themselves to be better than male counterparts because of a tendency to keep a cool head in a hot spot.

"Generally speaking, we feel the women have a slightly steadier approach, and this is the kind of work which demands a lot of patience and stability," said MAG's country director, David Hayter.

The all-woman team, started up six months ago to give experienced female deminers a chance to climb the promotional ladder in a male-dominated military-style hierarchy, is proving such a success MAG plans to create two more in the next year.

"It's still fairly early days but we are confident with the experience they have it's going to work fine. Their output is no different from an all-male team," Hayter said.

Good money, hard work

Earning nearly $200 per month, in this case paid by Christian aid organisation World Vision and the Australian government, the women have highly sought-after jobs in a country where many only make that much in a year.

That is not to say working in Ta Krouk, a village of about 30 wooden huts surrounded by heavily mined scrub 65 km (40 miles) southwest of the capital of Battambang province, is a picnic.

Clearing a 23-metre (75-ft) wide channel from the road to a stream used by the villagers, the team have already found 11 mines, eight pieces of UXO -- most of them mortar bombs -- and more than 49,000 pieces of metal in an area smaller than a soccer pitch.

With any scrap of metal, from bullet casings to coins to a chewing gum wrapper, all set to trigger detectors, progress is a painstaking and stressful 20 square metres (215 square ft) per person per day.

But with poverty and landlessness forcing many villagers and internal refugees elsewhere in Cambodia to move back into mined areas, the need for clearance teams has seldom been stronger.

As long as funding continues, Mine Action Team 12 can be safe in the knowledge they have a lifelong career saving other people's lives as well as giving a much-needed boost to the reputation of the fairer sex.

"At first some men said 'Women can't clear mines', but now they realise we can, and they thank us," said team supervisor Seng Somala.

First Published: Mar 08, 2004 13:59 IST