On 24th November 2016, the Colombian government signed an historic peace agreement with the Revolutionary armed forces of Colombia (FARC). Ravaged by 50 years of armed conflict, Colombia is the world’s second most densely-mined country according to the Landmine Monitor Report. Handicap International, which has been supporting Colombian people since 1998, is accredited as one of the country’s four official humanitarian demining actors. Involving women in clearing contaminated areas is one of the organisation’s priorities.
31 of Colombia’s 32 departments are contaminated by mines and explosive remnants of war. Since 1990, the use of improvised explosive devices has become systematic, generating more than 11,100 casualties - 80% of them have disabilities. Nearly half of the casualties are civilians who live in the remotest and the most deprived areas in terms of health structures and rehabilitation care. And 26% of them are children, who are particularly vulnerable. These accidents have serious consequences, including death, injury, long-term disabilities and psychological trauma.
“For the past 19 years, Handicap International has been supporting the people of Colombia. Our teams have been educating communities on how to prevent accidents caused by these weapons, and providing assistance to victims, including rehabilitation support and access to education and employment,” explains Aleema Shivji, Executive Director of Handicap International UK.
The organisation has just launched a five-year demining operation in 3 of the most contaminated departments, with a specific focus on indigenous land.
“Our approach is comprehensive: we prevent the risk of developing disabilities by educating communities and clearing the land of mines, and we also provide assistance to victims,” adds Aleema.
Since April 2016, three teams of deminers have been trained and women have an important role to play in the demining activities.
“There are currently 17 women and 33 men on our teams. Women play a vital role: they are responsible, highly motivated, and their social skills are essential if you’re living in camps with other people. Women are fair leaders and respected. They build relationships of trust with villagers, who tell them where the mines are. By handing them this responsibility, Handicap International is gradually helping to improve the image of women in Colombia, which is still a very macho society,” explains Irene Manterola, Handicap International’s Director in Colombia.
The organisation ensures strong representation of women in its demining teams – reflecting the high proportion of women in the Colombian population – and gives them “leadership” positions.
Women like Marta Quintero who oversees mine clearance operations in Meta department for Handicap International. Marta has never forgotten a lucky escape she had when she was a teenager.
“When I was fourteen I stumbled on a mine as I was walking through my village. It was damp so it didn’t go off. I saw people maimed by mines when I was growing up. I saw children die for a war that wasn’t theirs. Like many people, violence had a big impact on us. And now I’m a mine clearance expert. I really love my work. I can’t tell you how great it feels when I finish clearing a mined area,” says Marta. She is one of a number of local women whose day job is to save lives.
Interviews available upon request. Possibility to organise media visits with Handicap International teams in Colombia.
Marlene Sigonney, Handicap International UK
Tel: +44 (0)870 774 3737 / Mobile: +44 (0)7508 810 520
About Handicap International
Co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Handicap International works in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster. We work tirelessly alongside disabled and vulnerable people to help meet their basic needs, improve their living conditions and promote respect for their dignity and fundamental rights.
After a long campaign against landmines and cluster munitions which led to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, Handicap International now aims to stop the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Handicap International is a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the Cluster Munition Coalition and the International Network on Explosive Weapons.