The Good, The Bad, and the Brave: Women & their Fight with Cluster Munitions

With the tenth anniversary of the Convention on Cluster Munitions approaching, the many successes of the treaty are increasingly apparent. While the convention is the product of a multitude of different peoples’ hard work, many of its successes can be attributed to women, whether they are on the frontlines clearing contaminated land, or lobbying for stronger legislation domestically or internationally. Mines Action Canada (MAC) is well aware of the huge role these women and girls play in helping not only their individual communities, but the global community. Today, on International Woman’s Day, we would like to share what we have learned, and what you should know about the role women play in solving the problem of cluster munitions.

The Bad: The Disproportionate Impact of Cluster Munitions on Women

Cluster munitions impact women and girls differently than they do men and boys. While only around a quarter of women are the direct victims of cluster munition remnants, they are disproportionately affected by them in other ways. Women often face unique issues when dealing with the aftermath of a cluster munition explosion. They face barriers to medical care, social stigmatization, psychological trauma, and even the possibility of divorce and abandonment. Women are less likely to know about the resources available to them, such as prosthetics and rehabilitation. Women are also less likely to receive risk education regarding cluster munitions that teaches them what areas to avoid, and how to safely deal with cluster munitions when found.

Even when women are not the direct victims of cluster munitions, they often become ‘secondary’ victims. If a husband or male provider is killed or severely injured by a cluster munition, a woman and her family may be left without a provider. Finding work with pay equal to that of a man’s is extremely difficult, if not impossible in many places around the world. Women are also much more likely to stay and care for a disabled spouse, than a man is to stay with his wife after she is injured. In general, women who are injured face a poorer long-term outlook than men who are injured, primarily due to a lack of educational and medical resources for women.

The Good: Working Towards Positive Change

Things are changing for the better, largely because of the actions of organizations such as the Cluster Munition Coalition, which works to track the progress of states with regards to cluster munitions, raises awareness about the issue, and puts pressure on states which may not be meeting all of their commitments under the Convention on Cluster Munitions. While the original convention text does explain that states should implement gender-sensitive assistance to cluster munitions victims, it was not overly clear to many what exactly that would entail.

The Dubrovnik Action Plan, agreed to by the Convention on Cluster Munitions’ states party in September 2015, helped to clarify the expectations for states who had signed the Convention. It set out clear steps for states to follow that would allow them to meet the requirement for gender-sensitive assistance. In addition, states agreed to improve data collection by including the sex of the individual injured by cluster munitions. Most importantly, the Dubrovnik Action Plan details how nations can consider the specific vulnerabilities of women and girls, and how to improve female victims long term outlooks. The clarification and literal step by step instructions on how to incorporate gender into work on cluster munitions helps nations to improve the situations of women and girls impacted by cluster munitions.

The Brave: Fighting Cluster Munitions, One Bomb at a Time

Women have not allowed themselves to only be victims in the battle against cluster munitions. They are also stepping up to the plate to tackle the issue head on. Increasingly, women are on the frontlines, clearing contaminated land of these deadly weapons. In two of the nations most impacted by cluster munitions, Laos and Lebanon, women are tearing down barriers and creating all female demining teams. One of the goals of these teams is to give women the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty by supplying them with incomes that are the equivalent to, or even better, then that of the average man. More importantly, these women act as everyday heroes for their communities, inspiring their communities to take the steps necessary to end the scourge of cluster munitions and showing young girls that changing the world is women’s work.

Laos became a dumping ground for cluster munitions from 1964 to 1973 during the Vietnam War. At least 270 million cluster munition submunitions rained down on the country, or one planeload every eight minutes for around nine years. It comes as no surprise that Laos remains the nation with the most causalities from cluster munitions remnants, at an estimated twenty thousand. Women and girls are included in this number, and also have family members, their livelihoods and their happiness taken away from them.

One team leader of a Mines Advisory Group clearance team in Laos, Peng Souvanthone, credited her employment with providing her an income to support her family and the ability to educate her relatives on the risks of cluster munitions. Souvanthone has directly been impacted by cluster munitions; her eleven-year-old brother was killed by a cluster munition remnant in 2004 while hunting for scrap metal with friends. Stories like Souvanthone’s are too common in Laos, and she and others like her are working hard in turn them into rarities.

Lebanon has been contaminated with cluster munitions since 1978, and the problem worsened with later conflicts and bombings. Most recently, Lebanon’s cluster munition contamination was intensified by extensive use of the weapon during the 2006 conflict when Israel launched approximately four million submunitions in Lebanon. As is so common with cluster munitions, many of the submunitions did not detonate, leaving millions of potential bombs dotting Lebanon’s landscape long after the end of the war.

Women such Lamis Zein jumped on the chance to join a demining team, surprising the men in her community. Zein was no stranger to the impact cluster munitions can have on civilians, having lost five family members to the weapon during the 2006 war, including her grandmother. She, and a few other women, made up Lebanon’s first all-female demining team with the demining NGO Norwegian People’s Aid. When discussing her thoughts on the team, Zein stated, “it is a good opportunity for women and to encourage women to work in the field. It shows we can work in anything.” With two young daughters, Zein and the other women like her, are acting as role-models for women and girls in their communities, and are setting new standards for how women can directly work to solve the cluster munition problem.

In the midst of the ongoing conflict in Syria where cluster munitions have been used extensively since 2012, women are doing their best to keep their communities safe. Some are starting to work on survey and clearance operations while others are doing risk education; teaching community members, especially children, to practice safe behaviours in areas contaminated by cluster munitions.

Whether it is in clearance, risk education, advocacy efforts or assisting victims, women have played an active role in the implementation of the Convention on Cluster Munitions over the past 10 years. Their bravery and perseverance is the driving force behind the continued successes of the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Lexi Zamojski is a Graduate Student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University and a Research Associate at Mines Action Canada. 

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