Christine Kachataryan clears mines from Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. She and her female colleagues are pioneers in a profession that is usually dominated by men
London’s Metropolitan police and the UK Supreme Court both appointed a woman in their leading role for the first time in 2017. Meanwhile in the US midwest, many men who once worked in manufacturing are finding new careers in healthcare. While gender stereotypes for many roles persist, the unwritten rules are breaking down. What if all jobs went to the person best suited to them?
War is over in this landlocked, mountainous territory, but landmines and unexploded ordnance still threaten lives and livelihoods. This is Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where all-out conflict ended in 1994 but left its legacy beneath the soil’s surface. Those at The Halo Trust, a mine clearance organisation, aim to clear all of the mines there by 2020, both to prevent further casualties and to make the land economically viable.
Female de-miners began working for the non-profit in 2015. It was a first in this patriarchal culture, where sex-selective abortions are common and where many hold the belief that a woman’s place is in the home. Now, 11 women are working as de-miners in the region and more are being trained in a bid to reach the 2020 target. Christine Kachataryan (pictured above) was a secretary and accountant at a local school before she became a de-miner.
“My husband was very worried for me and didn’t want me to do it,” says the 38-year-old mother-of-three. “But landmines have affected everyone in our communities, and I wanted to do something to help. I was nervous at first – I’d heard the job was too dangerous for a woman – but our training taught us how to do the work safely.” She says the role is fulfilling, adding that her husband and family are proud of her now.
Fellow de-miner Lucine Asryan notes that her friends often ask: “Why do you want to be a de-miner, it’s a man’s job?” But her motivation is deeply personal: her uncle was killed by a mine and she began training soon after.
My husband was very worried for me and didn’t want me to do it. But our training taught us how to do the work safely
Despite stereotypes and stigma, the female de-miners of Nagorno-Karabakh are proud not to fall behind their male counterparts. “Women can actually do this job better than men because they are more detail-oriented, more responsible – and more careful,” says Sirun Ohanyan, who left a career in teaching to do the job.
“Men and women can do the same work, and our male colleagues are respectful,” she adds. Being mothers, many of the women say that being away from their children is the hardest part of their job. “My kids miss me,” says mother-of-five Inga Avanesyan, “but I dedicate the entire weekend to them”.
Then there’s battling the elements: extremely cold winters, and long hours under the baking summer sun. But the end is in sight. Since 2010, an estimated 90 per cent of this region’s minefields have been cleared.
As well as empowering themselves by taking on the work, the female de-miners of Nagorno-Karabakh look forward to a safer future, where their children will be able to run in the fields freely. Says Kachataryan: “When the mines are cleared, life here will become safer and people will live without fear.”