Jordan’s women in no man’s land

The first all-female de-mining team in the Middle East works to remove 136,000 landmines.

There are 136,000 mines along Jordan’s northern border with Syria, military data shows [NPA]

Jordan has stood at the front-line of the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1948, and in the six decades since has been de-mining battlefields where opposing armies once roamed.

Many of the country’s land mines date back to the 1948 partition of Palestine, the 1967 Six Day War, and hostilities with Syria in the 1970’s.

A peace treaty with Israel in 1994 allowed Jordan to speed up its de-mining efforts; 73,000 Israeli mines have been removed from the Wadi Araba border area.

In 1999, Jordan ratified the Mine Ban Treaty, which prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines.

The task for the Jordanians now is to remove some 136,000 mines from a 104-km belt along the northern border with Syria by 2012, a measure stipulated by the treaty, and they have pioneered a new approach that challenges social norms.

In October 2008, a group of 10 women from the province of Mafraq, where mines pose the biggest threat to some half a million Jordanians, became the first all-female de-mining team in the Middle East.

Rima al-Lahem, a divorced mother of four, says she faced social barriers when she first took up the job. “This [Mafraq] is a conservative Bedouin area, where defying the norms is forbidden and women who do so are looked down on in our culture,” she says.

In the small northern border villages where unemployment is about 40 per cent, women have few job opportunities, let alone ones that are meant for men. Though they were taunted by men in their neighbourhoods, the women de-miners did not give up on what they say is a humanitarian challenge.

“At the beginning we didn’t find the encouragement and support from our community, but when everyone started hearing about our achievements in freeing contaminated [mined] land, they started to support and respect us,” al-Lahem says.

Trained by the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), an NGO working as the contracted implementing partner for Jordan’s Northern Border De-mining project, the women are fully qualified to detect, recover, diffuse and dispose of mines.

Humanitarian necessity

Eman, another member of the female de-mining team, whose father also works as a de-miner, says she joined the effort because “lots of people living here have become victims of land mines. Some ended up with amputated arms and legs, so the goal to join the team is humanitarian more so than it is financial.”

The job is anything but easy, and the women have shown immense resilience. De-miner Haya al-Andali says the job tests her fitness limits and aptitude under extreme weather conditions, and even at times, her self-esteem, as she excels in a vocation previously dominated by men.

Technicians say military maps do not show the exact location of mines in Jordan, and erratic mine-laying patterns have also made the de-miners’ mission more difficult.

According to NPA, de-mining statistics throughout the world have shown that while female de-miners may be slower than their male counterparts, their work is actually more thorough. Because they are naturally meticulous and cautious when it comes to safety measures, the women also suffer less accidents while on the dangerous job.

Lina Ghazi, the NPA co-ordination and communication manager, explains that women empowerment is one of the pillars of the NGO’s work worldwide. One of their strategies is to have women involved in all of the sectors of the de-mining process.

“It’s a very foreign concept to begin with. But NPA has tried it all over the world and it has worked out perfectly. We have had no problems in terms of having female de-miners as opposed to male de-miners, and if women around the world can do it, so can Jordanian women,” she says.

The women on the team are university graduates, higher education students and homemakers.

Regional de-mining initiatives

Jordan has 10 female de-miners working in the north [Courtesy: NPA]

According to Jordanian military estimates, some 305,000 anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines were planted in the country in the past 60 years.

The presence of these mines acts as a contaminant, blocking access to valuable agricultural land, cultivation and grazing. It also delays irrigation and hydroelectric projects, restricts housing and construction, and isolates historic and cultural heritage sites. 

Mohammad Breikat, the national director of the National Committee for De-mining and Rehabilitation (NCDR), says signing the Mine Ban Treaty is proof that Jordan is trying to seek peace in the region and that successive wars have adversely affected far too many people in the Middle East. “We are trying to call for peace in this country,” he says.

Although Jordan’s de-mining project will come to an end in 2012, the NCDR plans to keep the country involved in other de-mining activities around the world.

“We are trying to establish a regional or international training centre for de-mining in Jordan. We’ve already trained 30 participants from 20 different countries on how to manage war and unexploded ordnance waste,” Breikat told Al Jazeera.

“There also may be an attempt to establish a Jordanian company specialised in de-mining to help neighbouring countries affected by mines.”

Despite the progress made over the past decade, land mines are still present in 70 countries and kill around 6,000 people a year, according to global land mine reports.

But for Jordan, 2012 will mean a safer passage in Mafraq, improved social and economic development in the area, and no more amputations due to land mine injuries.

Source : Al Jazeera

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