Go to main content

Women are demining for peace in Colombia

Press release | London, 8th March 2017 15:00 GMT

A female deminer undergoing training in Colombia.

A female deminer undergoing training in Colombia. | © J.M. Vargas/Handicap International

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.


Notes
Interviews available upon request. Possibility to organise media visits with Handicap International teams in Colombia.

Press contact
Marlene Sigonney, Handicap International UK
media[at]hi-uk.org
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.

Published 08/03/17

Contact our
UK Press Team


Email: media.uk@hi.org
Tel.: +44 (0)870 774 3737

Urgent enquiries
contact Marlene Manning:
+44 (0)7508 810 520

The city of Mosul has been a battleground since October 2016. Handicap International teams in Iraq see children, women and men injured by bullets, blasts and shells on a daily basis. In addition to Handicap International’s work in camps for displaced people, its teams work in hospitals to assist casualties with physiotherapy and psychological support sessions.

“The battle to retake Mosul began six months ago,” says Maud Bellon, coordinator of Handicap International’s emergency response. “But since February, humanitarian needs have increased tremendously. As fighting reaches the most heavily populated areas of the city, population movements increase.”

Over the past month, more than 150,000 people have fled the fighting in the western part of the city. The flow of internally displaced people keeps on increasing, with an average of 9,000 people leaving the city every day.

Amongst the newly displaced population, humanitarians are meeting high numbers of civilian casualties from west Mosul, injured by heavy shelling in the area. Hospitals and other health facilities are unable to cope with the numbers of trauma victims coming in from Mosul by ambulance.

“Although people living in the city face a high level of risk, it’s also very dangerous to flee,” explains Maud Bellon. “Since the start of the operation in western Mosul, several hundred people have received care and treatment close to the front lines for injuries sustained in the conflict. Many were hit as they tried to leave the city.”

People like Sawsan, 12, and her family. In January 2017, they were injured in an air attack. “When the fighting started in our neighbourhood, we immediately fled Mosul,” explains Younes, Sawsan’s father. “We had almost reached safety when we were caught in an attack. My wife, two of my children and my mother-in-law were hit by shrapnel and they rushed us to the nearest hospital. The doctors told me that Sawsan had suffered a fracture in her arm, her little brother needed an operation on his head, and my wife, who was pregnant at the time, had lost our baby.”

The family now lives in Khazer, one of the largest camps for displaced people in Iraq. Since she arrived, Handicap International has provided Sawsan with physiotherapy sessions and psychological support. The organisation is also assisting other members of her family who were injured in the attack.

Another source of concern is the number of families returning to their home town or village when the fighting ends.

“350,000 people have fled Mosul since last October, but nearly 70,000 of them have already returned home. The streets and abandoned houses not destroyed in the fighting are littered with explosive remnants of war and improvised explosive devices. It is still very dangerous.” adds Bellon.

In recent weeks, Handicap International has stepped up its risk education activities to ensure civilians are aware of the dangers and know what to do when they come across explosive devices.


Notes
Interviews available upon request. Possibility to organise media visits with Handicap International teams in Iraq

Press contact
Marlene Sigonney, Handicap International UK
media[at]hi-uk.org   | +44 (0)870 774 3737 | +44 (0)7508 810 520

Handicap International and the Iraq crisis:

Handicap International has been working in Iraq for 25 years. Since 2014, the organisation has been supporting displaced Iraqis, working as close as possible to conflict zones, sometimes only one of the very few NGOs present in the country. Handicap International’s emergency projects have supported over 125,000 people in Iraq since 2014.

Handicap International is currently educating local populations about the risks of explosive weapons, conducting mine clearance, and surveying potential danger zones. We are also providing rehabilitation care and psychosocial support, supporting health centres (e.g.: equipment, staff training), supporting disabled and vulnerable people to access services, and ensuring they are included by other humanitarian organisations.