Landmines: the hidden threat

Date: August 19, 2010
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Esperança Chidzinga lives in the rural town of Chicualacuala in Mozambique’s Gaza province. Accessible only by a train that comes twice a week, the town is isolated and under-serviced.

When Chidzinga was nine years old she went into the forest with school friends to gather wood for a party and she stepped on a landmine and lost a leg. Her life has never been the same.

“I was at the hospital and my father came to see me,” she said. “When he left I tried to follow him but when I got off the bed I fell down. That’s when I realised I had lost my leg.”

Chicualacuala is a typical example of the many areas in Mozambique still affected by landmines laid during the country’s civil war.

When wars and conflicts pass, the effects remain long after the last gun is fired and the last bomb is dropped. While men may face most of the violence during a conflict, the landmines left behind after war ends usually pose the greatest risk for women and children as they go about their daily chores.

Although most landmines around urban and well-travelled areas have been removed, more isolated rural communities like Chicualacuala still live with the daily threat.

“It is very important to raise awareness in Mozambique,” says Madalena Baptista da Silva, Country Director for World Without Mines, which works to improve the livelihoods of communities affected by landmines. “The great work being done by humanitarian demining companies, as well as commercial companies, is not enough to stop the killing by mines.”

According to the Plano Nacional de Acção contra Minas (National Action Plan Against Landmines), due to the nature and the extent of the conflict in Mozambique, mines and other unexploded ordinance, like grenades, are spread far and wide, making the process of removal and decommission slow and complex. As a way of minimising the loss of human lives resulting from landmines, the government has trained more than 700 mine educators, among whom 345 are teachers in schools located in the affected communities.

Until recently, very few landmine initiatives have taken the gender dimensions of landmines into account. However, with the adoption of internationally binding commitments, such as the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, and the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, signed in 2000 and 2008 respectively, the needs of women and girls in post-conflict countries are being more closely examined. Resolution 1325 specifically Landmines: the hidden threat, addresses landmines, emphasising “the need for all parties to ensure that mine clearance and mine awareness programmes take into account the special needs of women and girls.”

Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to landmine accidents and their long lasting impacts because of their traditional roles. Women and girls are usually the ones gathering firewood and water. These activities take them into mined areas. Sometimes, as in Chidzinga’s case, the community does not know the area is mined. In other cases, people may take risks and venture into known mined areas because they represent the community’s main access to water or firewood.

Landmines also have socio-economic impacts on women. Walking long distances to avoid minefields may take away time they would normally be spending on income-generating activities. Losing a bread winner to a landmine also increases the burden on women to provide for their families.

Joana José lives in Nova Mambone, a small village near the coast in Inhambane province. She is a widow, and when her son was killed by a mine while out with his friends, it meant lifelong poverty for her and her family. “I sent my older son to school so that he would take the family out of poverty,” she says. “When he died, I began to worry about getting a job. I got a job but then … I couldn’t work anymore because of my age. Now I live on agriculture.”

More recently, anti-landmine organisations and initiatives are starting to take women’s needs into account. For example, Chidzinga and José told their stories as part of a project implemented by a Community Media for Development (CMFD) production for World Without Mines that aims to document the personal stories of landmine survivors. One of the project’s priorities was the inclusion of women’s voices. By telling their stories through audio and visual “digital stories,” the project is working to raise awareness about landmines and the long-lasting impact on individuals, families, and communities.

Many of the women involved in the project are illiterate. Although reluctant at first to share often painful memories, for many, the experience was transformative. One participant said ”I feel free and happy because we gathered to tell our stories.”

Through the storytelling process, many came to understand how important their experiences are. “I feel an added responsibility now, because my story will contribute in supporting other communities with the same struggles,” noted one Chicualacuala participant.

For Chidzinga and José, and other women like them, the war will never really be over until their lives are free of landmines.

However, with a little help from international commitments like Resolution 1325 and the SADC Protocol, more and more initiatives are taking their needs into consideration, and making sure that their voices are heard.

Cessy Phiri and Tonya Graham work with Community Media for Development. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service.

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