International Women's Day - Margarida Luis Sitoe

“My name is Margarida Luis Sitoe and I am a manual deminer for APOPO. This means that I use my metal detector to help clear old landmines left after the civil war in Mozambique.

You could say my job is exciting! It’s hard work but I enjoy it and as an African woman I feel empowered in such a position. I thought that working in a male orientated profession might be difficult because some men in Mozambique think that women should not work; it is not their place. But APOPO redresses the gender balance through employing women at all levels and positions across the whole organization. In a way we are ambassadors because women in Africa can be disempowered through a culture in which men often control household income and therefore choices. But the men in APOPO are very supportive. Some were surprised at first to see women on the minefield but now they treat us like equals! The team has become my family.

APOPO uses an integrated land release approach in its mine clearance activities. Firstly we decide how dangerous the land might be through survey, which saves resources by determining as accurately as possible the scope and extent of contamination before committing expensive clearance. We do this by consulting local communities who may know where the landmines are placed. Sadly, many of the people who know where suspicious areas are do so because they, or individuals in their family, are victims of accidents.

Once we have decided if an area poses a risk, we send in large machines that start to prepare the ground for mine clearance by removing dense vegetation. The area is divided into rectangular boxes or polygons, and I prepare safe lanes around these by verifying step by step with my metal detector. Every time an alert sounds I stop and investigate. Often it is an old bit of scrap metal, like a bolt or a coin. This is called ‘metal contamination’. But sometimes it is a landmine.

APOPO’s Mine Detection Rats, or MDR for short, also search for landmines. Two rats verify each box, guided by the handler. When the rats smell explosive, they scratch the surface of the ground. Their handler places a mark at the edge of the safe lane and we also take GPS coordinates. The rats are much faster than manual deminers because they ignore all the explosive-free scrap metal. The authorities test the rats before they can start work and they regularly receive refresher trainings to keep them performing well. Of course I didn’t like rats before I met the APOPO HeroRATs. They are associated with disease and rubbish. But now when I see what they can do, I am proud of them and I defend them to my friends!

Once the rats have done their job, I investigate all indications from the rats and safely excavate any landmines so that my colleagues can then prepare them for disposal. It is very intense. You have to concentrate hard and the heat can be extreme, especially when wearing all these protective clothes. However APOPO teaches us to follow strict safety procedures and we have to take regular breaks from the heat and to regain our concentration. There are also medical staff on hand with top quality equipment.

I am a single mother but through my job I can support my two children and my mother, and I can also invest in the family vegetable business. My mother is concerned that I will be injured one day, but I assure her that if I follow the rules that won’t happen. My children don't understand what I do but they hear from people that I am helping our communities, the people of Mozambique, and they are very happy. I think the best thing of all about my job is seeing the land given back to the people who live there. Watching their children playing safely and see how happy people are that they can once again farm the land without fear."

Margarida Luis Sitoe, Mozambique