Mairi Cunningham works for The Halo Trust in Syria
A Scotswoman who clears landmines in some of the world’s most hazardous countries has told how she’s proud to be exploding the myth that only men can do this dangerous job.
Mairi Cunningham leads Scottish demining charity The HALO Trust’s team ridding Syria of deadly devices - and has also worked in trouble spots Cambodia, Somaliland and the disputed Caucasus region of Abkhazia.
Speaking on International Women’s Day<MAR8>, the 32-year-old from Broughty Ferry, near Dundee, admits she still encounters antiquated attitudes to women taking on demining work.
Mairi said: “I don’t want to paint to negative a picture of the sector, but it’s not been the easiest or smoothest of rides. Unfortunately, I’ve encountered chauvinist and sexist behaviour – quite a lot of it.
“It often surprises men in certain contexts, the questions I ask, and the issues I raise. You can see them think ‘How does she know that?’. It’s because I’m trained, I’ve been in a minefield, I’ve done disposal, and I know what I’m talking about.
“It can be a challenge being a woman in management when you are dealing with local governments or military. I’ve never had anyone refuse to deal with me outright, but you do sometimes sense a rolling of the eyes.
“Working in the Caucasus was quite tough and an eye-opener in terms of old-fashioned attitudes. You just have to stick your elbows out a bit and persevere.”
Mairi worked for almost two years as HALO’s Deputy Programme Manager in the Caucasus dealing with the aftermath of a massive ammunition warehouse explosion in Abkhazia near the Russian border, which scattered an estimated 100,000 items of unexploded ordnance across 450 hectares.
She said: “In the Caucasus, there can be quite a traditional macho culture, but women are playing a vital part in detecting and destroying nearly 100,000 items – 30 per cent of our team are female.
“Visiting the site every other day, I was almost immune to the sight of mortars, anti-aircraft bombs, projectiles, just littering the ground everywhere. It was a real eye-opener for me, and the proximity to dangerous items was constant.
“Getting women on board and rising up into senior roles was great. We are challenging the stereotypes of what women are capable of doing.
“These women then serve as a role model for the women in their communities, for their children, their friends’ children, so it has a ripple effect.
“I’ll never forget one lady on the Abkhazia team, whose motivation to work for HALO was because she’d lost a two of her cousins in accidents following the 92/93 conflict. Kids were playing and had picked up the wrong thing.
“It was quite touching to know that she had this personal drive to do this work and she was quite inspirational because she was one of the pioneering women on that programme.
“In Syria, we have a mixed gender team and that has been crucial to gaining greater access to the communities. In a lot of these cultures, to speak to local women, you need women on the team.
“There is still the stereotype of the sort of person that should be doing our job but that is shifting.”
Mairi admits that even people back home in Scotland are surprised to discover her dangerous job, but says that her parents never attempted to deter her from taking up her role with HALO.
She said: “My parents never tried to put me off and because my brother’s military they couldn’t treat me any differently. It’s never been an issue, and as a woman, there’s never been any limitations over what I want to do.
“My brother is in the army and has done several tours in Afghanistan, so I thought ‘Well, it’s my turn to keep them on their toes’.
“I’m sure working with explosives in places like Syria can be a little nerve-wracking for them, but I’ve always been a bit of a traveller, and do a lot of more edgy pursuits like skiing and mountain sports, so they are used to the fact that I am not someone that will sit at home and water my plants.
“I think they respect the work I do and are proud, but I think they maybe don’t want too much of the details of what I’ve seen or done.
“Some people back home can be very surprised when you tell them what you do. The world in Broughty Ferry is a long way away from mine clearance.”
Mairi joined HALO in 2018 and started her new role as programme manager for Syria in December. She’s currently overseeing her team of 80 staff from Amman, Jordan but is awaiting international clearance to join her teams on the ground in the north-west of the country soon.
The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office has invested £124m to help clear the equivalent of 28,500 football pitches of deadly explosive devices worldwide in the last three years through the Global Mine Action Programme.
The Syria Crisis has been the UK Government’s biggest ever humanitarian response, committing over £3.5bn of support, including the delivery of over 28 million food parcels, 20 million medical consultations and 14 million vaccines, since 2012.
Mairi said: “HALO has recorded over 3,500 accidents involving explosive remnants of war accidents between 2016 and 2020, affecting 4,427 victims, although this almost certainly under-represents the problem.
“We had one horrendous case where a shepherd lost all five of his children in one explosion. If kids see an unusual item, they often think it’s a toy, and on this occasion, it was an IED.
“The poverty in Syria is so great and the desperation means people are reduced to sifting through rubble to try and find things of value to sell to survive and that’s where they’ll disturb an undetonated device and are maimed or killed.
“HALO is not just about mine clearance but we’re doing a lot of work on risk education. We’re going into schools and communities and warning people of the risks and what to do if they find something.
“The many incredible women who have joined HALO are not just making their countries safe, but challenging out-dated stereotypes about the sort of work women can do.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “Scottish aid worker Mairi is a shining example of the brave individuals who are working to remove the global scourge of landmines in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.
“International Women’s Day is an important opportunity to shine a light on the work she and many other female deminers do. The UK Government is pleased to be supporting The HALO Trust in its work training deminers and ridding the world of these deadly devices.”
Brave Mairi is just one of The HALO Trust’s army of female deminers making land safe across the world with support from UK aid.
Camilla Thurlow was a HALO deminer who was catapulted to fame on the reality show Love Island. She is now an ambassador for the Scottish charity, based in Thornhill, near Dumfries.
She said: “Some of the most inspiring women I have ever met were in minefields high in the Caucasus mountains, in the jungles in Cambodia or in the African bush.
“They do tough work and long days, where staying alert all the time, is crucial for their safety and to make sure they leave behind land that is totally safe for local people.
“They were also breaking new ground by doing a job once thought to be men's work. They say not all heroes wear capes, but a lot of them wear Kevlar vests!"
In 2017, HALO launched a unique project in Angola to train and employ all-female demining teams to combat a shortage of jobs for local women. Over 76 local women were recruited – with six promoted to leadership roles and 33 completing paramedic training.
HALO supporter Prince Harry met with the women during a visit to Angola in 2019, where he followed visited the former minefield his mother Diana, Princess of Wales, famously walked shortly before she died in 1997.
One of the Angolan deminers first hired under the project is Julia Tchimba.
She said: “I feel proud and strong that I am doing this job. I am helping the world but especially my country, Angola.
“Here in Angola many people go to school and university but afterwards there is no work. When I heard about HALO’s project to employ women as deminers, I was very surprised, but I knew I had to try and do something to improve my life.
“To start with I was very afraid. After our training, we went to Cuito Cuanavale, one of the most dangerous minefields in the world.
“I was shaking so much. Every step I took, I was checking the ground beneath my feet with the detector—even when I wasn’t in the minefield!
“But after a couple of weeks I was not afraid. I never thought I cannot do this. I said to myself, ‘if the other women are doing this then I can too’.”
Edinburgh-born deminer Rachel Brock was 23 when she started working for HALO in 2006 – clearing mines in Cambodia.
The 37-year-old mum-of-one said: “It was very, very scary. When I first cleared landmines, I was absolutely petrified.
“I was inching and scraping towards it, knowing it was there, and very, very happy once I found it, that that was it, it was revealed, and I could move on. Once I'd done that first one, I felt a lot more confident. You gain confidence as you go on.
"When you're in these communities, they’ve grown up with amputations or injuries from landmines.
“After Cambodia, I had my daughter and now I'm a parent, it hits home even more.”