This last week has been a busy one here at NPA Tajikistan. After a long series of delays, the paperwork has finally come through from the necessary government Ministries to deploy over 60 deminers to the Afghan-Tajik border area to begin the 2013 clearance operations. Once the personnel are deployed and the logistics are finalized, headquarters staff are looking forward to a period of “normalization,” as everyone settles into their routine tasks for the demining season.

As some readers will be aware, Thursday April 4th was the International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action. Like other mine action organizations all over the world, NPA participated in a special event to raise awareness about landmine and cluster munitions issues, and to highlight the impact of their work at the national level. In Dushanbe, the Tajikistan Mine Action Centre (TMAC) and Tajikistan Coalition to Ban Landmines (TCBL) held a public exhibition event at the downtown Amphitheatre, where all major mine action organizations showcased their activities. NPA, for example, provided a demonstration of humanitarian manual demining equipment and techniques. The exhibition included speeches from the Tajik Minister of Justice, the head of the OSCE and ICRC in Tajikistan, and ICBL Ambassador Firoz Ali (check out the photos here: https://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/NPA-Tajikistan/237973266241075).        

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An NPA team leader demonstrates a range-finder to a group of Tajik students.

Now, for the main story of this post. Earlier in the week, I also had a unique opportunity to visit a vocational training center for landmine survivors and their family members in the town of Garm, several hours to the east of Dushanbe in the Rasht Valley. As a primary base of anti-government forces during the Tajik civil war, the population and infrastructure of the central region in Tajikistan remain heavily affected by conflict, including landmines and cluster munitions. By some accounts, nearly 10% of the region’s population suffers some form of disability as a result of the conflict and the left-over contamination of unexploded ordnances (an approximation, of course – statistical data is notoriously unreliable, especially in Tajikistan’s remote regions). Even today, the Rasht Valley remains a restive area only loosely under the control of the central government. In 2010, for example, an unknown rebel group ambushed a Tajik military convoy in the village of Kharamog, killing 28 soldiers.

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On the road to Garm in the Rasht Valley. Sort of reminds me of “The Wall” from Game of Thrones.

I set out with TCBL campaigner Umarbek Pulodov (at whose family home we stayed and enjoyed excellent traditional Tajik hospitality) and Firoz, who were travelling to Rasht to monitor the progress of the victim assistance program funded by a small grant from the ICBL since 2012. Previously established as a government-run employment training center, the grant has funded a special income-generating program for landmine survivors and their family members. The need for vocational skills-training in affected communities such as the Rasht Valley is obvious; not only does it help build income-generating skills for its participants, but also provides a venue for networking among landmine-affected individuals and an opportunity for victim assistance organizations like TCBL to identify target beneficiaries for other programs such as psycho-social services and peer support. This last point is especially relevant in the conservative cultural environment of Tajikistan’s central region, where the social stigmatization and isolation of those with disabilities (particularly among women) is a major barrier to the provision of services. 

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A hopelessly oversized Tajik spread in Umarbek’s home in Rasht.

The ICBL supported program includes a three month computer skills course (teaching Word, Excel, and basic hardware maintenance), as well as training in tailoring, baking, and handicrafts. One graduate we met had landed a job doing communications work for a local company – a considerable success story and career opportunity in such an economically underdeveloped region. During an interview with Firoz, the center’s Director claimed that 75% of last year’s graduates now successfully ran some form of small business to provide supplemental incomes. The Director also posed the idea of opening a gift shop on the premises in order to better market the products, as well as construction plans to expand the center (necessitating, of course, additional donor funding).

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Inside the center, an ICBL-supported vocational training course.

The Director explains the computer training course to Firoz.

The Director explains the computer training course to Firoz.

 When Firoz asked the Director to explain the fact that all the students actually inside the center during our visit were not directly-affected survivors but only family members, we heard that many disabled survivors had moved away from the region – to Dushanbe or elsewhere – because of accessibility barriers, sometimes leaving their families behind and economically disadvantaged. Alternatively, it was implied that some survivors simply “cannot be helped,” due to either lack of accessibility or an unwillingness on their part to participate in victim assistance programs. We also noticed that none of the students in the computer course were females – this, we were told, was due to the fact that women preferred those skills they could use from the home, i.e. tailoring and handicrafts.

 So, what did this trip teach me about victim assistance in mine action? First, as Firoz pointed out, raising awareness about the rights of disabled survivors – not just their need for assistance – is critical, particularly for those living in isolation (and, again, even more so for women). The simple fact that landmine survivors themselves in the region were unable or unwilling to directly participate in the vocational training program is a significant shortcoming. Even the training center was not fully accessible, a fact that in itself reflected a lack of prioritization of the rights of the disabled. Second, the absence of female participants in the computer course was also instructive of the deeply entrenched gender norms in this conservative culture, which plainly limit the economic and social options available to affected women in the region. Although these kinds of gender barriers can appear insurmountable, we should remember that they are nowhere permanent. Just look at neighboring Afghanistan; a dozen years ago conditions for women in that country were if anything worse than in Tajikistan. Now, although hardly perfect, access to education for women in many regions is commonplace. Cultures change, if only unevenly and in fits.

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Myself, ICBL Ambassador Firoz Ali, and our driver Iman.

Well, that’s it for this week. I’ll be hoping for my paperwork at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to come through soon, which will allow me to visit NPA’s actual demining operations on the Afghan border and, of course, provide fodder for another enthralling blog post. Stay tuned…

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