Seab Phanith, a young woman from Kampong Chhnang province, is dressed in a Cambodian demining force uniform. With one hand holding a dog leash, she shouts commands at the four-legged mine detector, telling the dog to walk, sit and sniff for mines with a firmness to her tone.
In early August, the 21-year-old Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) official was photographed raising a large Cambodian flag to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the establishment of CMAC.
“At first I wanted to join the police or the army, but for this CMAC unit... I understand that this field is also like the police or military, so I decided to join, especially because I love dogs,” Phanith told The Post.
Phanith, a strikingly beautiful young woman, found her looks worked to her detriment in seeking to pursue this career when her family and friends, informed by stereotypes, mostly declared it too dangerous and unsuitable for her.
“I want to be a deminer! I know how to hold a dog! They are afraid of dogs dragging me around instead of me leading them because I’m so slim. It’s upsetting because normally all of these words are said once, and then it’s okay. But back and forth, they say the same things to me over and over again,” she said.
However, the disapproval by others of her choice of career have not prevented the courageous young woman from pursuing it and she has even won over the hearts of her parents who were extremely worried at first about it.
Chhim Sam Oeun, Phanith’s father, joined CMAC in 1992 as a demining chief, when the unit was first formed. That year, during the UNTAC era, he went to train to become a demining instructor.
“I have nothing to worry about because we have the skills and training as well as technical knowledge,” he said.
Phanith admitted that growing up she did not always like her father’s job because she understood that it was a dangerous career and some of her friends made jokes about it, but once she became an adult she began to see the importance of the work of the demining units.
Phanith chose to work with dogs because she has loved dogs since she was a child, and when she started attending demining classes she had the goal that one day she would attend the dog training courses no matter what.
“I was curious to hear about the dogs that serve in the unit and whether they could really do what they showed us in demonstrations. Once we got in and got to know them, we knew that if you didn’t like them they might smell bad to you because they do have an aroma to them,” she recalled.
While working at the demining unit for almost a year, Phanith continued her studies in English in Kampong Chhnang town and she would like to take time off to study in Phnom Penh, but sometimes on Saturdays and Sundays she has obligations that make it difficult to travel long distances.
Phanith is currently studying for an internship as a teacher because she does not have a certificate to work with the dogs yet, which requires two more years of study.
Although she has not yet led the dogs at an actual live demining site, she said she is not afraid of the demining work because she grew up around demining equipment at home.
Phanith has had several months of training using regular demining tools and she said that when she found unexploded ordnance that were at risk for causing an explosion, she would inform the bomb disposal experts who would remove it or destroy it where it laid.
Phanith says miners need to know everything about explosives - their appearance, size, type and names, which requires a three-month demining course on identifying them.
Eam Sopheap, director of the Dog Demining Centre, acknowledged that in the past the Dog Centre had a shortage of woman as dog handlers, with only a few participants, but she said the number of women in the handling demining dogs has increased in recent years to between 30 and 40 per cent of deminers.
“Because working with dogs requires technical skills rather than the use of force, women’s participation is no different from men’s. They have the ability to use their brains and communicate with the dogs,” Sopheap told The Post.
He added that the succession programme, which was launched in 2018, also encouraged women to have the courage to participate in demining just as their parents did.
In addition to training, dog handlers have to take care of their four-legged friend from head to tail, ensuring that they are free of parasites like lice and brushing their fur regularly.
“Working with dogs is not difficult for me. If we put our hearts into caring for the dogs and we understand their minds, then we will understand our partners and whatever the work is, it will go smoothly. We need to know how to take care of them so that they have confidence and there is no fear. First of all, we need to understand its heart and meet its needs. Then they will do anything to please us,” Phanith said.
Through long-term training contact, one female dog named Dam has become close friends with Phanith over the last four to five months. Phanith said she started out by communicating with the dog so that they trusted each other before asking Dam to be obedient to her.
“My future goal is to continue demining work with these dogs. I may be destined to be here for all my life,” said Phanith.
With skills as a deminer handling dogs and her study of English, Phanith says she would not hesitate to go on missions abroad if required by the nation.
“Yes! I would definitely go out on a demining mission in war-torn countries facing a lot of landmines, under the United Nations’ umbrella, if required by our top leaders,” she said.
“For overseas missions, it can provide new experiences for us. We can show the world that Cambodia can bring dogs to clear mines abroad and I’d be especially proud to work to help people of all nationalities,” she added.