|Ladies on the humanitarian front line|
“It is a great pleasure to be a part of life's saviors” says Thavarathnam Pushparani, the team leader of FSD female demining team in Sri Lanka. FSD established its first female deminer team “MAT 8” which consists of 14 deminers and two section leaders, in December 2009. The team started its official duties after having received intensive training conducted by mine action experts in the Foundation. This team is currently operating in Periyathampanai in Vavuniya.
In Sri Lankan context, there is a strong ritual of both men and women working, with men focusing more on income opportunities and women engaged in household activities. Currently, women's involvement in the paid labour is significant for professions such as nursing, teaching, tea plucking, or garment construction. Being a deminer is considered as a high-risk military-oriented profession. It entails steady hands, and strong mentality which has traditionally been saved for men.
The 38-year old Pushparani, a single mother of two young daughters from a village named Kovilkulam, is one of the rare women who demonstrates the extraordinary ability and skills required of a Team Leader. “I heard from my colleagues that FSD is setting up a female deminer team and I applied hoping that they will recruit me, and now I am glad to work with the team. We have been trained for doing this, we respect standard operating procedures as set by our organization, and this is just a job for us. I do not believe that this is a typical male and life-risky profession as long as you do the job correctly.” states Pushparani and explains with tears in her sad eyes how she became the bread-winner of the family after her beloved husband died tragically in an air-craft attack during the war few years ago. Encouragement from her family and good cooperation from her team members drives her to continue the job successfully.
The ladies of MAT 8 clear an average of 45-50m2 of ground manually and remove 20-30 landmines on a daily basis. The dedicated team reports to work at 7 am and works 8 hours a day. FSD provides food and has established a base camp near the Madhu church, with the kind permission of the Bishop of Mannar for the team to stay during the working days until they go home during the stand down period - One week per month.
“Life is fun and I feel that I am back in school” says Moganakrishnan Thulasi, an enthusiastic smiling deminer in the team. Thulasi has never been employed before and she is satisfied by her first job in life. She found out about the job through a colleague working for the FSD General Mine Action Assessment team. “We are all working together and we have strong team work. My view is that demining is just a common job. Previously, I wondered if I would be able to do such a difficult task but during the training and practice in reality I understand that there is nothing that women cannot achieve.”
“My friends and relatives are worried about my work and life; they are astonished how I made up my mind to do such a risky job. When we meet at family occasions, I am bombarded with a lot of queries how I work in the ground and how I deal with the landmines. I try to make them understand but they will never realize because they do not physically see what I am doing in the ground and how safely we do this job according to the International Mine Action Standards and Standard Operating Procedures. Well, for me every job is risky if you do not do it rightly. Every mine I remove, I feel I save a life! I pray for god to protect my colleagues and me while we are working in the minefields. I trust that we opened the doors for other girls to consider about this valuable job. We help our people who are residing in IDP camps to come back to their villages soon. This is what you call real humanitarian work! Now, with my experience I am glad that I took the right choice to become a deminer. Life is easy if we follow the correct methodology. This is my way” says Thulasi.
During the working hours they are conscious in every aspect of the job because even a slight lack of attention or an improper action can cause danger to those involved. Due to the remarkably high stress levels endured in the field, it only seems natural that these people too, like the rest of the island, need to relax after a hard day's work. The ladies of MAT8 play badminton after work and these type of extra curricular activities help deepen understanding and build respect between colleagues which will serve them well in the future.
As it is viewed as traditional for a woman to be married and raise a large family, 33 year-old Thulasi is a mother of two boys and three girls that live in Thonikkal, a little village in Vavuniya. All the children are schooling except for the last one who is in pre-grade Montessori. When she is away at work, Thulasi’s mother and her husband are looking after the children. Her husband is a three-wheeler driver whose daily income is insufficient to sustain the entire family. So, to respond to life's disadvantages and poverty she started working as a deminer for FSD.
“Demining is not a popular job for women” explains National Supervisor Rajinikanth. “Even though this is a male-dominated occupation, I do not see a difference in performance of MAT8 compared to all other male teams in our programme because in certain circumstances MAT 8 clears larger areas than other [male] teams. After all every deminer is a deminer”. As at 22 February 2010, this team has cleared an area of 3,041m2 and removed 998 Anti personnel mines, 6 Unexploded Ordnance and 3 other explosive remnants of war. Currently, four more women are following the deminer training conducted by FSD and will join MAT 8 in March.
“MAT 8 gets a lot of attention because the deminers are female,” says Nigel Robinson, Programme Manager of FSD in Sri Lanka “but from a programme perspective they are treated no differently from the male teams and are expected to perform to the same 'World Class' standards.” “This is not a PR stunt – these ladies will be the first team to clear over 1,000 mines on our current task,” he adds. “They are on the humanitarian front line.”
FSD is working in Vavuniya and Mannar districts to facilitate the government’s plan to resettle 280,000 IDPs and is supported by the international community. The ladies of MAT 8 are a critical part of this process and proud members of the FSD Team.