At 24, the strikingly beautiful Kan Sokserey carries a badge that shows her blood type – just in case. As a member of Mine Action Team Five, who are de-mining the fields of Battambang province, she is required to wear it, pinned to the heavy uniform she wears with a protective helmet.
“I was a little scared at the beginning but not after the training. Once you know exactly what to do, it’s no longer dangerous,” she says, smiling.
She’s one of hundreds of female de-miners working in Cambodia, who have bucked the perception that the occupation is too dangerous for women and now work side by side with men in the fields.
Landmines – once lauded by Pol Pot as the “perfect soldiers” – are still planted densely across Battambang Province, posing a real threat to the lives of rural citizens and stifling community development.
Cambodia is still among the countries with the highest rates of landmine and unexploded ordnance contamination. The latest figures show that January to June this year there were 104 casualties – mostly in Battambang.
The British-funded Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is one of several de-mining organisations working in the country and was the first to train and employ female de-mining teams in 2004. Initially they were segregated into all-women teams but now work alongside men. Women make up 30 per cent of the organisation’s workforce, working in a variety of roles from de-miners to trauma care workers and data collection officers.
“This used to be a fighting area between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese forces”, says Kong Chivin, MAG’s field officer and a native of Battambang, pointing at the fields and forests surrounding Dei Kraham village in Battambang Province where MAG’s Mine Action Team 5 is based.
Battambang accounted for more than a quarter of all landmine casualties in the country between January 2011 and June of this year. Just two years ago, 14 people were travelling through the province when their vehicle struck and detonated an anti-tank mine, killing all the occupants except for the driver, who later had his leg amputated.
Today the team is currently looking for potential dangers in the woods along National Road 57, leading up to the border with Thailand. On the designated swath of land, de-miners work with the precision of surgeons, manoeuvring graciously between stretches of red rope dissecting the territory into safe and “suspicious” areas.
With almost two decades of experience, Ros Thanin, one of MAG’s first female de-miners, is now an expert qualified to overlook this unhurried process and make sure the workers come out unscathed.
She was one of the first skilled pairs of female hands to join MAG in 1995, in what used to be considered an exclusively male occupation.
“The operations are 100 percent safe, if you strictly follow the safety guidelines,” she says, explaining the intricacies of the mine-clearing mission as she strolls along a cassava plantation where the local outfit’s medical care tent is pitched.
Other women, sheltered from the afternoon rain under the hospital’s roof, nod their heads in agreement.
Once the rain stops, she and her colleagues will again take turns at scanning the land with metal detectors, cutting undergrowth, raking and digging for explosives.
“Along the day, we use a task rotation system so that we don’t drop our guard.” says Thanin. A momentary loss of focus can cost a life.
However demanding the conditions, the women take pride in a vocation that helps villagers and the country.
“We can do this work just as well as men, and we’re happy that our work helps people,” says Chit Saya.
Dislocation to remote areas far from their families is hardly a novel experience for Cambodian women, and the women accept the realities of their work.
“It’s a job like any other and offers better wages than a garment factory, where I used to work. Here in Cambodia we’re often separated from our families because of work. It’s nothing special,” she says adding that the country couldn’t progress without initiatives like MAG.
In the MAG 5’s field shelters, girls share living space, food and a common understanding.
“We have all we need and there’s no such thing as privacy here. We don’t have time either to argue or make close friends,” says Saya matter-of-factly.
All the team looks forward to the chance of reuniting their families during holidays – a time they look forward to as much as the renewal of their contracts.
“All deminers are employed on one-year contracts and if the funds run out, our work has to cease. So far, MAG has been able to secure enough funds, there has been enough help from abroad, we to continue our work in the area,” says Chivin.
“We were indeed the first landmine clearance operator to hire female deminers – others followed suit from 2006 onwards,” says O’Reilly, adding that there is no preferential treatment for either gender, as the NGO would like to see their ranks grow with more female recruits.
The team leader says MAG has now moved away from segregation because with their skills combined, mixed-gender teams work more efficiently.
“The men are better at carrying heavy things and they always offer help to our female team members. It makes our work faster and easier,” she says.
Most de-miners are too young to remember the war, but its reminders make their imagination go back in time.
“I often think about how it must have been back then and how the troops were moving,” says Ken.
She acknowledges that danger is part of her everyday existence, but she doesn’t see herself as a soldier.
“Of course I wouldn’t join the army,” she says, bursting into laughter.