Sri Lanka's civil war may have ended in May 2009, but the scars of war still remain in the form of landmines and unexploded munitions that slow down rebuilding efforts and prevent several thousand displaced families from safely returning home. For the past two years, the United States has stepped up its support to Sri Lankan communities working for peace through clearing these hidden hazards for one of the world's most active humanitarian demining programs.
The success of this U.S.-funded demining program would not have been possible without the significant contributions of female deminers in Sri Lanka. In a recent visit, I had the opportunity to meet some of these strong, courageous, and inspirational women working for a better tomorrow.
Many of these women were widowed during the war and are now the sole financial providers for their families. These women make the heartbreaking decision to leave their children with relatives for weeks at a time while they conduct clearance operations, seeking solace in the livelihoods they can provide for their families and the Sri Lankan lives they save as a result of their work.
The United States is proud to be the world's number one provider of assistance to countries recovering from conflicts by safely clearing landmines and unexploded munitions. Since 1993, the U.S. Humanitarian Mine Action program led by the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM/WRA) has delivered more than $1.9 billion in support to 81 countries, saving countless lives through clearance operations, risk education programs, and survivors assistance administered by more than 60 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) worldwide.
Since 2002, PM/WRA has provided more than $20 million to the humanitarian demining and conventional weapons destruction program in Sri Lanka, and hopes to continue its support in the coming years. This funding has allowed our NGO partners on the ground, Danish Demining Group, the HALO Trust, Mines Advisory Group, and Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, to provide the training and equipment needed to undertake this essential -- and dangerous -- mission. All four of our NGO partners have fielded several all-female demining teams, which have made a significant contribution toward our overall clearance of nearly 95 percent of all high priority areas and helped to resettle more than 200,000 internally displaced people (IDPs).
A typical day for a female deminer begins in the wee hours of the morning. Most of the female deminers live in NGO camps in close proximity to the minefields so that they can get to work quickly and safely. Once on site, the female deminers don personal protective equipment and start the painstaking work of seeking landmines and unexploded munitions. Their helmets, visors, and heavy padded aprons are uncomfortable and only add to the already excruciating heat, but the women are keenly aware of the very real threat of injury or worse that they face daily.
The women work an eight-hour day, with breaks lasting from 15 to 20 minutes every hour. Because of the tedious and strenuous nature of demining work, regular breaks are essential to keep the deminers awake and focused. After a hard day, the women travel back to their camps for dinner and down time. This schedule is resumed daily for three consecutive weeks until a week-long home-leave at the end of the month.
For some women, demining is critical for their own families' resettlement. According to one female deminer, “I support my parents and my daughter with my salary. They are still in the IDP camp because my village is still mined. Hopefully they will go home soon.”
In all, the United States has provided nearly $20 million to support the post-conflict humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka in 2011, including $4.9 million in support of UN efforts on behalf of the displaced and returnees. PM/WRA is committed to these female deminers and the demining program in Sri Lanka as one of the many ways the United States is supporting the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of all of Sri Lanka's displaced to their homes.
Much work remains ahead -- the clearance of agricultural land, community centers, and infrastructure -- and we are proud to support these female demining teams which are breaking down gender barriers in Sri Lanka, while simultaneously protecting lives.