Unseen dangers: Landmines plague Yemeni women

The humanitarian landmine clearance project “MASAM” in Yemen. Photo by MASAM. By MASAM project,  CC BY-SA 4.0. Fair use

At just nine years old, Lamis Omar lost both of her legs in a landmine explosion while playing with friends in Aden, the temporary capital of Yemen. Despite this tragedy, she demonstrated remarkable resilience by founding the Mine Survivors Association Aden Branch in Yemen to combat the very thing that had taken away her mobility. Currently, Lamis serves as the director of the organization.

While one might expect that being a woman in Yemen confined to a wheelchair would have caused depression and ruined her life, it had the opposite effect on Lamis. She now spends her time supporting mine survivors, particularly women, by providing livelihood training to empower them economically and assisting them in launching their own projects.

Today, on the International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action, it is important to draw attention to the urgent challenge of landmines in Yemen. In addition to the armed conflict that has plagued the country since 2014 and made it the worst humanitarian crisis of the century, there are other aspects of the conflict that also require attention. 

During January of this year, 41 incidents of unexploded landmines occurred in nine Yemeni governorates, resulting in the tragic deaths of 32 civilians, including 14 women and children, and injuring 42 others, including 15 women and children. These incidents have caused lifelong disabilities for many survivors. 

Since 2014, Houthi rebels have planted over one million landmines across the country according to the MASAM project, a Saudi launched, multilateral humanitarian project that aims at clearing landmines in Yemen. Almost 18 of the country's 23 provinces are threatened by landmines. Since mid-2018, the project has successfully cleared nearly 400 thousand mines throughout Yemen.

Devastating impact of landmines on Yemeni women and girls

The widespread planting of landmines in Yemen has a disproportionately greater impact on women and girls than on men. This highlights the urgent need for action to be taken to safeguard the safety and well-being of Yemeni women.

Given that men in Yemen are frequently either on the frontlines or away seeking employment, women are often left with the primary responsibility of caring for their families. This is particularly difficult for those living in impoverished rural areas with limited access to education and healthcare, who are also at greater risk of encountering landmines and unexploded ordnance.

Their regular journeys to fetch water, firewood, and herd livestock, as well as when they are compelled to leave safe areas to make a living, such as collecting recyclable materials, further heighten the risk of encountering landmines.

In Yemeni culture, disabled women are often viewed as burdens and are often overlooked as potential wives, compounding their difficulties. Therefore, for these women, a disability can result not only in physical injury but also in lifelong emotional trauma.

How landmines and climate change compound humanitarian crises

Landmines don't just pose a threat to people but also to animals and the environment, as they render agricultural land unusable and cut off access to resources in remote districts. Minefields often block the most convenient access to land, neighboring villages, the sea shore, or other parts of the community. 

The risk that mines pose has been further heightened by floods and sporadic heavy rain resulting from climate change in Yemen, as flash flood water can unearth landmines and carry them into populated areas.

The damage caused by landmines to the environment and sources of water and agriculture threatens to accelerate Yemen's catastrophic risk of running out of clean water completely. Human Rights Watch has reported that Houthis have used landmines to deprive people of water and food resources.

While deminers- people tasked with clearing mines- have been casualties of the landmines, the majority of the victims are civilians. According to a study by the American Center for Justice, between June 2014 and February 2022, 2,526 civilians were killed as a result of landmines in Yemen.

However, local organisations in Yemen argue that these reported numbers are very modest and the actual death toll is much higher. According to the Yemeni Landmine Records organisation, in Taiz, the most populated governorate in Yemen, 3,263 civilians have been killed since 2015, with 47% of casualties being women and children.

Timid attempts at change and steps forward

The landmine crisis in Yemen persists despite efforts by international and local organizations like UN Mine Action Service, the Yemeni Executive Mine Action Center, and the Landmine Survivors Network. Progress has been hindered by the Houthis’ failure to provide maps for demining.

According to Hans Grundberg, the United Nations Secretary General’s Envoy to Yemen, although the truce has led to significant reduction in casualties from the armed conflict, “today, conflict-related civilian casualties are mostly due to landmines and unexploded ordnance.”

In September 2022, 30 humanitarian organisations issued a joint statement at the UN General Assembly, calling for immediate action to address the crisis and allocate more funding for landmine removal and victim rehabilitation

Carnegie Endowment for Internation Peace noted in an article in September 2022 that Yemen, a state party to the Mine Ban Treaty, must prevent prohibited activities related to the use of landmines and submit maps of existing mines.

A peace deal must involve women and support female victims. Local initiatives such as The Feminist Peace Roadmap can help in integrating women in the peace processes and highlighting landmines as an important trust-building measure for achieving sustainable peace. 

In addition to all that, sanctions should also be applied against those who plant mines, in accordance with the Ottawa Treaty to which Yemen is a signatory. Without these provisions, the people of Yemen continue to suffer consequences of this war for decades to come.  

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