Nathalie Ochoa has seven years’ experience working in the mine action sector in Colombia. She joined the mine action sector in 2009 to assist with an impact survey being carried out by the national authority and has since worked with a humanitarian demining operator and the United Nations Mine Action Service. At present, she is living and working in Bogota, Colombia.
GMAP: Please tell us about your work and daily tasks.
Nathalie: I’m currently working as an Operations and Training Officer with UNMAS – mostly on capacity building. I provide support to the national authority, especially helping with the national standards and the expansion of the mine action sector in Colombia. I’m supporting the national authority with a post-conflict mine action policy – the prioritization of areas, development of response plans, and on the transition of the mine action policy to adjust to a new post-conflict setting. Finally, I am also working directly with humanitarian demining operators that are new to Colombia so that they can adjust their operational procedures to be able to safely conduct operations here.
GMAP – Why are gender and diversity important aspects to take into account in mine action?
Nathalie: In the Colombian context, there is a lot of diversity amongst people including in the rural communities where there’s mine contamination. In the rural areas you see women, men, children, indigenous people, etc. and they are all differently impacted by the mines. By making mine action gender and diversity sensitive, you can improve the impact of the activities and make sure the needs of these different groups are met. For example, you can improve the overall humanitarian impact of the mine action activities, create employment options for these people, improve the overall economic conditions in the area, really make sure that mine action is more equitable, and create opportunities for all these individuals to participate in peacebuilding efforts.
GMAP: Can you tell us about a time when gender and diversity considerations have led to better outcomes on the ground?
Nathalie: There are two examples that come to mind. The first is from when I was working with the humanitarian demining operator supervising non-technical survey. There, I saw just how much better a team of only women, or a mixed team of men and women, are received by the community. When female only and mixed teams were used, the community shared reliable information much more freely and quickly than when male-only teams were used.
The second example is from when I was working with the national authority. From Bogota, we saw that one NGO was having problems to conduct mine risk education programmes in a region in the south of Colombia – the Putumayo department. In this area, there are many indigenous communities, and in one particular case, there was a community who – according to local beliefs – thought that the landmine contamination was a punishment directed at them by the universe. Because the MRE programme was not considering diversity dimensions like about local beliefs, in this community the MRE activities were ineffective. However, by changing the activities to take into account the indigenous beliefs, we were able to make the project successful.
GMAP: What are the challenges and opportunities for women working in mine action?
Nathalie: The answer really depends on the context. The biggest challenge in Colombia is to overcome the cultural restrictions that dictate that women should not work because they are expected to stay home and take care of children. The other main challenge to overcome is the idea that women are not strong enough – physically – to carry out demining activities, and that demining should only be an activity for men. That being said, I’m happy to say that in Colombia I had at least 13 women on demining teams, which showed everyone that women are strong enough to carry out activities to a high standard.
Actually, through demining activities, I saw local beliefs about women and their capabilities start to change, and even saw communities take pride when they saw women working in the sector and leading by example. Even now, every time a new recruitment for deminers opens, more and more women are applying. This is really important for Colombia, because these changes are happening in areas where traditional gender roles are still very strong, for example, in some of the communities that I worked in, the first time the villagers saw a woman driving a car was when one of our female deminers drove past in one of the operator’s vehicles. These are small changes, but they are an example of how the humanitarian demining sector is having a positive impact on gender relations in communities, and when the humanitarian demining sector expands, I think that this impact will be felt across the whole country.
How will you be celebrating International Women’s day?
Nathalie: I think there are a few events going on here, but frankly, I’ll celebrate by going to work – like every other day – as a woman in mine action.