MAPUTO, Mozambique—When Biatriz Hernesto was a child, she and her school friends longed to pick fruit in the bush behind her grandparents' house. They knew that's where the best marula fruits and other wild treats grew. But they also knew the area contained land mines, so they seldom ventured there.
Hernesto grew up in Maxixe, in southern Mozambique, in the aftermath of a brutal civil war that lasted from 1977 to 1992 and left the southern African country riddled with deadly, unexploded ordnance.
When she saw people coming to clear the land of mines, she hid. "We thought the de-miners were soldiers who would kill us," says Hernesto, now 25.
Many of them were, in fact, former fighters. Traditionally, mine-clearing efforts in Mozambique, and globally, have employed ex-soldiers as a way to provide them with work and integrate them back into society, says Ashley Fitzpatrick of APOPO, a Belgian NGO headquartered in Tanzania that clears land mines in Africa and Asia.
But those demographics are shifting. In Mozambique and other countries, women are now working as de-miners.
In Cambodia, women began taking up such work in 1995, followed by Kosovo in 1999. The passage of UN Resolution 1325 in 2000, which required the de-mining industry to work toward gender equality, has boosted the trend. Now, about 20 countries employ females in land-clearing occupations, which include de-mining, training, and managing.
The push for women deminers has also come from donors who support the de-mining efforts of humanitarian organizations, says Arianna Calza Bini, director of the Geneva-based Gender and Mine Action Programme.
Those donors, along with the UN and many NGOs, note that in postconflict areas, de-mining is often one of the only economic opportunities available. And workers and funders want to include the larger community in the process—it is, after all, their land that's being cleared. Finally, it's often women who are most at risk of being hurt or killed by land mines in the field.
"Women are the people in Mozambique who are responsible for gathering firewood and water, and for tilling the fields," says Kate Brady of the United Nations Development Programme in Mozambique. "Therefore, they are [most] likely to be affected by land contamination."
In this coastal country, land mines left over from three long-resolved conflicts have resulted in at least 2,458 casualties through the end of last year.
But the horror may finally be coming to an end. With help from women de-miners, more than 300,000 mines have been removed since 1992. Mozambique is expected to be declared mine-free by the end of this year.
Mechanics of Mine Clearing
Most of Mozambique's mines were planted during three periods: the civil war, the 1964-1974 anticolonial war with the Portuguese, and the training of Zimbabwean liberation forces in Mozambique in the 1960s and '70s.
Removing the mines from those campaigns is not only dangerous, it's also tedious. For one thing, it involves wearing a cumbersome helmet and a heavy vest similar to those worn when getting an x-ray.
But it's something people have to do. While dogs and rats can be trained to detect the scent of explosives used in mines, and machines can clear the land to make searching easier, humans must handle the animals and operate the machines.
Hernesto is small and strong, and little shells decorate the ends of her braids. She was one of the first women to join Handicap International in Mozambique in 2010, when the organization began hiring and training women as de-miners.
She wears the same bulky boots and heavy de-mining vest as her male colleagues, but a glimpse of polka dots can be seen through the buttons of her work shirt.
During the month and a half she spent in training, she wanted to quit several times. She worried about what would happen if her metal detector failed—if the batteries burned out, for instance, and the device missed a land mine and she stepped on it.
But she stuck with it, largely because of the support of the 11 other women who made up Handicap International's first female de-mining team.
In the field, de-miners maintain a distance of about 50 to 165 feet (15 to 50 meters) between themselves, so that if one of them sets off a mine, others won't be injured.
But that doesn't guarantee safety. The radius of a mine explosion varies, and deadly shrapnel will sometimes travel as far as 325 feet (100 meters).
When a mine is found, it's detonated with other explosives; it's considered safer to destroy it where it is than to try to remove it. De-miners light a fuse that allows them about five minutes to leave the area before the explosion.
A Casualty on the Farm
Florincia Artur knew there were land mines in the bush where she lives, in an isolated region of Inhambane Province in southern Mozambique. So one afternoon this past February, the 17-year-old mother decided to instead collect firewood near a field where corn and cassava grow.
She did not feel the land mine. She only heard a loud noise and felt pain. It felt, she said, as if someone had beaten her.
Her mother heard the explosion from the village. Then she heard Artur's screams and ran to pull her out of the hole the explosion had created.
She covered her daughter's bleeding leg in a capulana, a traditional Mozambique sarong. It took them four hours to reach the closest hospital.
Artur's right leg was amputated above the knee. Her left leg and left forearm were badly burned and scarred. Unable to lift her toddler son, Artur had to leave him in her grandparents' care.
In the area where Artur was injured—a 342,250-square-foot (31,800-square-meter) field—Handicap International workers have found four antipersonnel mines, one fragmentation mine, and three other pieces of unexploded ordnance.
"People used to say that there were mines in the bush," says Artur. "But they never said there were mines in the farm."
The Meaninglessness of Gender
When Mozambique's de-mining process began in 1992, says Alberto Augusto, director of Mozambique's National Demining Institute, people thought it would take a century or more to complete the task.
Now—despite deadly ambushes by rebels from the guerrilla Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) prior to October's elections, during which at least two de-miners were shot in the course of a RENAMO offensive—they expect to have cleared all known areas by January.
That's thanks to strong commitment from both the government of Mozambique and the international community. Roughly 90 percent of the de-mining here is done by humanitarian organizations like APOPO and Handicap International, while commercial groups such as BACTEC (Battle Area Clearance, Training, Equipment, and Consultancy) handle the rest.
Today about 20 percent of the roughly 1,000 active humanitarian de-miners—meaning those who work for NGOs, as opposed to the commercial miners who are paid by the government—in Mozambique are women, says Augusto. Many have been specifically recruited, which initially made some men uncomfortable.
Ismael at Handicap International remembers wondering if separate bathrooms at the campsites where de-miners live would be necessary, and whether the de-miners would work in mixed- or single-sex teams.
But it wound up being simpler than he thought. And, he says, if you look at the rate of clearance, there's no difference between the sexes.
The same seems to be true, at least anecdotally, in the wider international community as well, says Calza Bini of the Gender and Mine Action Programme.
But not all countries have embraced the idea. When she was in Libya last year, Calza Bini was told: "Don't ask—don't even mention female de-miners—because it's completely unacceptable" to the society at large and to many of the women's families.
When Hernesto started work, her parents called daily to check on her. She found her first mine on the third day of the job. She's found dozens more since then, but the initial fear she felt is still with her.
"I'm always scared," she says. "Because if there is any failure, it can be fatal."
Mines have injured two Handicap International de-miners since 1998, when the organization began working in Mozambique. Both were men; both lost a leg. Hernesto had trained with one of them. Seeing what he went through was hard, she says, but the experience did not weaken her resolve.
"If it's not me," she says, "who is going to do it? I have to do it."
"Like a Man in the Field"
Felicidade Matsinhe admits that her main motivation for becoming an APOPO de-miner was the pay—a little more than $300 (U.S.) a month in a country where the average annual income is $590 (U.S.).
A 25-year-old widow with a young daughter, Matsinhe sold secondhand clothes in a market before joining APOPO in 2012. Since then she has managed to save enough money to start construction on a two-bedroom house.
The house will have electricity and running water—a huge improvement over the simple coconut-thatch shacks she grew up in, and something she's dreamed of since childhood.
Matsinhe knows her work as a de-miner is what made it possible. Thankful for her job despite the danger, she keeps a Bible in her tent and prays each afternoon after she gets off work. "I pray so God may protect me," she says, "especially in the area where I am working."
APOPO team leader Januario Bape says he was skeptical when he first heard about women de-miners, unsure if they could handle the job. Now he no longer thinks about it. Instead, he praises Matsinhe's work, giving her what he considers the ultimate compliment: "She is like a man in the field."