Explosive girl power in Vietnam

In Vietnam the aid organisation Norwegian People’s Aid clears the land of explosives after the Vietnam War. The organization has established their very first all-female team of local Vietnamese women. They are willing to take up the risk of the job for the safety of their home.

By Jonas Boje Andersen and Lærke Weensgaard

The NPA started on their gender quotas in 2003 in Sri Lanka and has since implemented it in various areas where they provide aid. Photo: Lærke Weensgaard.

With metal detectors in their hands, black boots on their feet and khaki colored hats on their heads two dozen figures slowly make their way around a sandy area in Quang Tri province of central Vietnam. From afar they all look the same in their uni-sex khaki uniforms. But when you get closer, you will notice that half of them are women. Something a bit out of the ordinary in this kind of business.

These local Vietnamese women work for the aid organization Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA). NPA is one of Norway’s largest NGOs and one of their main activities is mine- and explosive clearance. Since 2008, NPA has been supporting Vietnam with disposal of unexploded ordnance.

Wherever NPA is involved they aim at leaving a mark of gender-equality in their workforce. In Vietnam that means they have several local women in their organization. In Quang Tri province it has led to the establishment of NPA’s first female clearance team in Vietnam.

Making home safe
The temperature rises quickly and during a break, the female team heads for the slightly cooler shade under the trees to talk to ScandAsia. They say, that they do the same work as the male teams, but they feel the absence of men creates a space where they can talk about everything with each other.

According to their team leader, 29-year-old Nguyen Thi Thuy, all-female teams also have other qualities:
“In my experience, the female teams are often more patient,” she says.

Nguyen Thi Thuy is born and raised in Quang Tri province. She joined NPA 6 years ago and her choice of work was no coincidence:
“I have seen many accidents with explosives, so I wanted to contribute myself to my community.”

The same thought seems to be the drive behind the other women as well. When asked, what the best part of their job is, the answer is simply to contribute themselves to the safety of their home in Quang Tri.

Scandinavian culture in the minefield
Not only do NPA apply Scandinavian gender-policies where they work, but they also offer the women more maternity leave than they would get elsewhere in Vietnam, according to Magnus Johansson who is the Swedish Senior Technical Adviser for the NPA in Vietnam.

Even though it might seem like a male-dominated and militaristic job to clear up explosive remnants from the war it is very important for NPA, that their staff in the field is not only men with military background.

In countries like Vietnam, where gender roles in some eyes can be a bit conservative, the female workers can be huge benefit in the process leading up to clearing areas infested with bombs. Before the NPA sweeps an area, they perform surveys where they among other things interview the locals to gather information about the history of the area and what they know about the potentially dangerous soil. In this process female villagers can be more hesitantly towards a group of men and that is where the female teams can come in handy.

According to Magnus Johansson, it is not a problem to recruit women for the job. But it is important that they are fit enough to endure the work. Therefore, all NPA workers including the women goes through different tests where they prove their physical and mental endurance of working under tough conditions.

Magnus Johansson also explains that this Scandinavian gender policy have created some hype in Vietnam:
“The donors and the media in Vietnam likes this. And that has helped attract more women in the job,” he says.

A few years ago, team leader Nguyen Thi Thuy was the center of attraction when a national TV-program aired a documentary about men and women in Vietnam doing extraordinary and heroic things for the country. Photo: Lærke Weensgaard

A hard day of work for Nguyen Thi Thuy and the rest of the teams is coming to an end. As one of the last things to do in the field, Nguyen swiftly prepares an explosive charge. In a few moments the remnants they have found today will explode and Quang Tri will become a bit more safe.

Tracing explosives in the Vietnamese soil

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