Until recently, demining was on the list of 458 occupations prohibited for women in Ukraine. However, the lifting of this ban in 2017 allowed Ukrainian women assume an active role in this dangerous activity. But why do women choose to venture into minefields?
While demining is still seen as “a man’s job” in Ukraine, more and more women are in fact joining this field. Part of the reason is that international organizations are carrying out non-technical (NTS) and technical surveys (TS) of potentially contaminated territories, and this exchange of experience with partners, along with gender mainstreaming at the national level, means state agencies are now hiring women-deminers and creating appropriate conditions for them. This is also a goal of the UNDP Mine Action Project, which is being implemented under the UN Peacebuilding and Recovery Programme (UN RPP), funded by the government of Canada.
A UNDP “Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices” (KAP) study on mines and explosive ordnance shows that women, men, girls and boys have differing perceptions of, and reactions to, risks from mines/unexploded ordnance in potentially contaminated areas. To fully understand the issue, and appreciate that humanitarian mine action is not just a “man’s job”, one has to hear the stories of the women who clear the land in the east of Ukraine of landmines and the explosive remnants of war.
Here is how two women, one from Donetsk Oblast, and the other from Luhansk Oblast, came to be deminers.
Valentyna Maletova: “All of the bomb craters are mine!”
Valentyna Maletova, a deminer paramedic for the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) international organization, came across openings for humanitarian demining work when looking for a job on the Internet. FSD was looking for an assistant for the NTS team to map potentially dangerous areas.
“I thought that it should be quite interesting,” recalls Maletova. “I had previous experience of field work, so I knew all about the ‘contact line’ and travelling there. So I had no hesitation in applying.”
She says regular office jobs are not for her – she needs to be constantly on the move, and employment in humanitarian demining provides just that. After a month of working as an assistant, Maletova got an offer to undergo paramedic training, and then demining training. Thus, she became a qualified deminer paramedic. But was she ready for such rapid change?
“I’m not scared of any hard work, and I understood very well what awaits for me in demining,” Maletova says. “If you approach it with common sense, if you’re ready psychologically, then you won’t have problems.”
“I don’t have any.”
Maletova has been working in her new job since December 2020, but admits she has not told her mother about it yet.
“She thinks that I’m just involved in some field work, compiling reports,” Maletova says.
"My mom is quite sensitive, so I don’t want to give her any more worries.”
Maletova’s boyfriend, though, knows about what she does in her work and gives her a lot of support, she says.
“He motivates me to set an example to others, saying ‘Dig as if you’re doing it for the last time!’ And that’s what I do!”
There are six people in Maletova’s team: three women and three men. She says that the working process is the same for everyone, and everybody works on equal terms. However, due to her speed and precision, only she is trusted to dig in bomb craters.
“The men in our team respect me for my professionalism,” the woman deminer explains. “I know how to present myself correctly. So nobody thinks that I’m fragile, or jokes that can’t do certain things. No, regardless how difficult it is, I always do what needs to be done. I think that I’ve proved it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have stayed on.”
When asked whether any woman could do demining, Maletova shakes her head.
“If you’re not used to hard work, you wouldn’t be able to do it. One has to be physically strong. You can’t show any weakness. Just like men, every day, before going to the field, you have to load up heavy tools. Even if the bag is bigger than you are! You have to be prepared for these things. If you’re ready, then everything will work out for you in demining.”
Is Maletova proud of what she does? The deminer says that she is used to doing everything precisely and diligently. So she does not think that she is doing anything new. Rather, she sees her accomplishment in something else: “I’m glad that I work for an international organization, and we’re helping people. These fields will eventually be used again by farmers or, for example, students of the agrarian college where we’re currently demining. This for me is indeed a reason to be proud.”
Maletova says that if she had been called to work in a hotspot abroad, she’d have thought of something to tell her mother, and gone. During her work in the fields, the deminer has found detonators and shell fragments, but she says this is not sufficient for her to understand all the nuances of demining. She wants to see an improvised explosive device or an unexploded ordnance in one piece:
“I really want to develop in humanitarian demining. To make it happen, I need to figure everything out, to study the process from A to Z. Hotspots await me in future. But for now I’m getting experience in Ukraine.”
Ilona Karpachova: “I didn’t expect such a reaction from myself”
Deminer Ilona Karpachova is a former dancer and choreographer. She would have never thought that she would one day be involved in demining, and moreover, with special digging vehicles. Her, friends still don’t believe that she has made such changes to her life, saying: “What are you doing? You’ve never held a shovel in your hands, you’ve danced your whole life. And now mines, mud, and an excavator? Seriously?”
These radical life changes began when Karpachova attended a demining exhibition held by an international organization – the HALO Trust. She recalls being very impressed with what she saw and heard about the work of deminers. She felt there was great value in this work, as you could saves lives with it. And even though the demining process appeared to Karpachova to be very difficult, she decided to give it a try, and took some demining courses.
Her parents did not take it well.
“To them, it looked like an enormous risk to my life,” Karpachova says.
“They imagined that there were no means of personal protection. That I’d go into the field and get blown up at once.”
Karpachova decided to dispel their fears by taking her parents to the demining exhibition. There they saw the demining process with their own eyes, and were assured that deminers are protected from the risks. The parents gained confidence in the organization and calmed down. Now they are proud of their daughter, of what she does, and how she has developed in humanitarian demining.
When Karpachova got into the mechanical demining department, the men there at first did not believe that she would be able to cope, and were quite sceptical about this idea. Karpachova also had her doubts. She was scared even to approach the “enormous growling vehicles.” So when the deminer was offered to take a course in operating an excavator, she could hardly imagine herself doing it. But she plucked up courage and agreed.
Today Karpachova says demining with special digging vehicles is one of her favourite things.
“I began to adore the big machines. I service, oil them, make minor repairs, and work in one of them. For me, this love is a big surprise. I didn’t expect such a reaction from myself.”
Karpachova is the only woman in her team of seven people. She laughs that it’s her luck – gender parity in the HALO Trust is usually much better. But she does not feel uncomfortable, and says that she gets along with her other colleagues very well. Everybody helps and supports each other. During field work, when the team lives all together, she always has her own room and her own space.
Demining work makes one disciplined, and Karpachova sees changes in herself over the last two years. She says she has become stronger and more confident. She has more concentration, clarity and attentiveness to everything around her. After all, in demining work, one needs to constantly calculate, reflect and keep on learning. The deminer laughs that when she gets back home after work, everyone seems to be very slow in contrast. She says it makes her wonder: “How can you live like this? You need to get into demining!”
During her work, the most emotional moment for Karpachova was when during an excavation she found a VOG25-P grenade launcher. “When I saw it, I was so thrilled! Not out of fear, but because I’d done it – I had found it,” she recalls. The deminer is very proud to be doing something so difficult and yet so useful at the same time: “Considering the difficult situation in Ukraine, this is a job in which you go into the field and you know that you’re there for a reason. Every day you’re doing something that benefits you, your people and your country.”
The United Nations Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme (UN RPP) is being implemented by four United Nations agencies: the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Twelve international partners support the Programme: the European Union, the European Investment Bank, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, and the Governments of Canada, Denmark, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland.