Empowering women in Angola

 By Helen Broadbridge

The sun has yet to rise as 23-year-old Cristina Cachilale Praia and her colleagues fall in to line. Behind them the mountains emerge out of the darkness and the railway bridge is a faint shadow cutting across the valley. They listen intently as a briefing is given then pick up their visors, tighten their blue blast-proof vests and head out into the approaching morning…

They are part of a unique project established by The HALO Trust the world’s largest humanitarian mine clearance organisation – and supported by Eni. Through the employment and training of female landmine clearance teams, HALO is creating a space for women like Cristina to become empowered, taking control of their own future and helping shape their communities.
During Angola’s three-decade civil war, tens of thousands of landmines were laid. The fighting ended in 2002 but the mines remained to kill and maim. HALO has worked here since 1994, clearing over 840 minefields and destroying 95,000 mines thanks to the dedication of their locally employed staff.
This is a country of great disparity; the capital Luanda is one of the most expensive cities in the world but nearly 50 per cent of Angolans live in overwhelming poverty. Employment opportunities for women are especially scarce. Recognising the vital role women can play in making Angola safe, HALO launched the “100 Women in Demining” project in March 2017. To date 34 women have been trained and employed to clear mines with Eni funding an entire team, including Cristina, in the area of Keneguerere, in the Benguela province.

Eni fund a female mine-clearance team, including Cristina. In May 2018, the Eni team visited HALO’s 100 Women in Demining Project, experiencing first-hand the difficult conditions of the Kanenguerere minefield (Scout Tufankjian)

We sit and talk outside Cristina’s tent in the HALO camp. The minefield is a two-hour bone crunching drive from the nearest city of Lobito so all the women live in the camp for the 24-day work cycle, before returning to their homes during the ‘pausa’ or stand-down week.

For a better future

Cristina is quietly spoken but when she smiles (which is often) her warmth is captivating. Life was very difficult before she joined the project. She was studying hard but had no job to provide for her four-year-old son, Milson—it was a struggle just to survive. When she heard about the opportunity to work for HALO she was determined to join, wanting to build a better future for them both.

I remember going for the interview. I was so nervous because my name was not called out for the first group of recruits. When they called the second group and said my name I was very happy. I didn’t believe in that minute that I had the job. Later I was very excited and thanked God

The work is tough, the heat relentless as the women painstakingly toil their way across the steep mountainside searching for signals using metal detectors. When a signal is heard, it is then a process of scraping away the sun-baked earth inch-by-inch. If the tell-tale edge of a mine is revealed it must be carefully marked and destroyed.
Currently the women are clearing the minefields at Kanenguerere to make a safe future for the local villagers and the Mucabal ethnic group who herd their curly horned cattle down to the river. The landmines were laid in 1984 by government forces to protect the railway from attack and had remained, a lethal blight in this rugged landscape. Bounding fragmentation mines have been found here—once triggered, they lift up into the air, firing out a wave of metal fragments. Before Cristina and the 100 Women began clearance work, small children ran barefoot through this dangerous ground—one unlucky step could have resulted in injury or death.

In the intense heat, Cristina painstakingly clears the ground as she searches for a signal with her metal detector. If a signal is heard it could indicate the presence of a landmine (Scout Tufankjian)

Cristina says the benefits of her work make the challenging temperatures, snakes and scorpions worth it. “The hardest thing is climbing the mountains in the hot sun with all our equipment and water but my job means I can support my seven younger siblings as well as my son.” Understandably, the women all miss their families when they are away but they have become like sisters to each other.

After work

Hot and dusty Cristina’s colleagues return from the field in their regulation boots and uniform. Living is extremely basic, khaki tents form a neat rectangle on the open hillside, each a sleeping space for four women. Inside the earth is bare, in the corner is a stack of sugar cane (sweet treats after a long day) and a cascading pile of potatoes. They sleep on cots complete with mosquito nets and colourful blankets. Water for washing comes from the river; a procession of women, coloured basins on their heads, snakes down towards the makeshift wash cubicles.
They emerge transformed, dresses bright against the sun. Cristina is in demand to paint Florinda’s nails as the women congregate in the nearest tent, a whirling mass of noise and excitement. Others plait hair or avidly watch the latest Portuguese soap opera as the generator kicks in—an important slice of normality in this remote and harsh location.

The bond between the women is strong. They see themselves as sisters and although camp life is basic, it is important to bring a slice of normality to the remote location. Here Cristina, assisted by Avelina, paints Florinda’s nails as they relax after a hard day’s work (Scout Tufankjian)

They are all proud of the work they are doing to make their country safe and that they are forging new roles for women in what has traditionally been seen as ‘men’s work’. As Cristina powerfully states: “It is not just men who can do this kind of work. What men do, we can also do.”
For Cristina it is also personal, she remembers her grandmother talking about family members killed in the war. Turning serious, she recalls descriptions of them running from the soldiers, fleeing through fields of mines. She feels happy that she is contributing to making Angola safe. It is good for our country and its people. It means people can cultivate their land and look after their animals.”
HALO, with the support of Eni, are helping women like Cristina gain their independence, creating opportunities for them to reach their potential. As she puts the finishing touches to Florinda’s nails, Cristina tells me with her typical quiet poise of her ambition to train as a paramedic in the minefield with HALO, before one day returning to her studies and realising her dream of becoming a doctor.
In Keneguerere, over the course of the 14-month long project, an area of 45,610 m2 was cleared – the equivalent of about 11 football pitches – and a total of 62 landmines were deactivated.

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about the author
Helen Broadbridge
With a background in writing and design, Helen is Digital Communications Manager for The HALO Trust and is based in the UK. She visited the 100 Women Project in Angola earlier this year with renowned photographer Scout Tufankjian, living with the women in the field to document their lives and the impact of their work.