Farah al-Ghazali did not hesitate: Despite all the dangers, despite the fears of her family and possible criticism from her compatriots, the young woman decided to rid her country of the remnants of the war – and to train to become one of the first female deminers in Libya to permit.
“My family told me to be careful,” she tells DW. “I promised them to be careful. I showed them all the good things we can do for the people here,” said the 30-year-old.
Numerous mine victims
Due to the length of the conflict, which has lasted for years and is far from being completely over, exact figures are sparse and hardly verifiable. But that Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor According to the report, more than 400 Libyans have been killed by landmines or unexploded ordnance over the past 15 years, and at least 3,000 others have been injured. However, the actual number is likely to be much higher. The disposal of unexploded ordnance remains a dangerous challenge in the country.
Al-Ghazali and five other women want to tackle this. They all received a two-month training course near the Libyan capital Tripoli in the autumn and winter before last. Since then, they have worked for various organizations that clear mines – including the Ministry of Defense and the Libyan-based mine clearance organization Free Fields Foundation.
Amal Mustafa also chose this profession. Her family was very concerned about her new job, she reports. Nevertheless, she encouraged her to start the training. The training was impressive, she reports: Equipped with heavy safety helmets and metal detectors in hand, she and the other women learned to identify dangerous areas and to defuse and clear the mines located there.
Deadly threat across the country
Mines pose a deadly threat in many parts of the crumbling country. While not all areas have been thoroughly surveyed, the United Nations estimated as of January 2020 there were around 20 million mines, or explosive remnants, scattered across the country.
The explosive remnants come from various conflicts – some even from the Second World War, but also from conflicts with Egypt and Chad in the 1970s and 1980s and various border disputes. The civil war that started in 2011, following the fall and assassination of long-time dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, brought more mines into the country.
These, along with so-called improvised explosive devices (IEDs), were said to have been planted by the troops of General Khalifa Haftar, who remains in control of much of the east of the country. In 2022, Human Rights Watch reported that Wagner, a Russian mercenary group fighting on the side of Haftar, was still laying landmines and booby traps near Tripoli in 2020.
According to human rights organizations, at least 130 locals have been killed by landmines or stray explosive devices since Haftar’s forces withdrew from the outskirts of the city in 2021.
“Direct Confrontation with Death”
“This job is a direct confrontation with death,” says Aseel al-Ferjani. She also belongs to the group of new deminers. “The mines don’t care if you make a mistake. They don’t give you a second chance,” said the 28-year-old.
“People say my job is dangerous. That’s right, it’s 100 percent dangerous,” says Huda Khaled, a 33-year-old deminer from Iraq. However, she has already seen worse in her home country. “We have experienced explosions in our markets and streets for years. The dangers of clearing mines are similar to those that we generally encounter in our everyday lives,” Khaled told DW.
But the physical dangers aren’t the only challenges the deminers face, says Mahmoud al-Alam, the women’s trainer.
In Libya, demining has long been considered a purely male profession. “That’s why the participants in our course faced a lot of criticism.”
The work has traditionally been male-dominated because of its historical connection to the military, agrees Abigail Jones, program manager for gender, diversity, equality and inclusion at the International Center for Humanitarian Demining in Geneva. “In the past, therefore, there have been greater difficulties for women in recruitment, particularly in explosive or demining operations.”
But that has changed since humanitarian mine clearance began in Afghanistan in 1988, Jones said. Today there is an international push to promote gender equality in mine clearance.
women on the rise
The first all-female demining team was set up in Kosovo in 1999 by a Norwegian aid organization. Today deminers work in 25 countries, such as Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Myanmar, Cambodia and Jordan.
A 2019 survey of international non-governmental organizations involved in demining found that the proportion of women in this profession is currently around 20 percent.
A study by the Journal of Conventional Weapons Destruction from autumn 2022 first answers. The researchers looked at demining programs in 14 different countries and calculated how many square meters of land each gender-segregated group had cleared. Overall, the researchers found no significant difference between the two groups. Accordingly, women approach this dangerous work no less courageously and decisively than male deminers.
“I know that I help people”
However, including women in demining is not just about giving half the population equal opportunities, says Abigail Jones of the International Center for Humanitarian Demining. Studies from countries like Sri Lanka and Lebanon, where demining workers have a long history, have shown that their work can change gender norms at the community level, Jones said.
This circumstance contributes to revising existing stereotypes about alleged abilities and, above all, inabilities of women, says Jones. It can also help to increase the influence of women in local decision-making processes as well as within the family.” The work also gives them financial independence, she adds.
Farah al-Ghazali, who has just completed her training as a deminer, is proud that she can defy “conventional thinking” in her home country. “I want to show that what men can do, women can do,” said al-Ghazali. “Every year I get better. I train and gain more experience, I’m always learning. And I know that I help people with my work.”
Adapted from the English by Kersten Knipp.