The three-decade-long civil conflict in Sri Lanka left 2,061 km² of land in both the Northern and Eastern provinces widely contaminated with landmines and unexploded bombs. Over a decade after the fighting ended, Sri Lanka is edging closer to being landmine-free, with just over 13 km² of land remaining that is known to be contaminated.

When all known minefields are clear, hardworking and dedicated deminers will have achieved their ultimate aim: to put themselves out of a job. But, as that reality comes ever closer, concerns about post-demining employment for a large, often vulnerable, workforce are, understandably, emerging.

Demining operations in Sri Lanka have among the highest proportions of female to male deminers in the world (39 per cent). Since 2002, demining work has provided an alternative avenue for the social reintegration of conflict-affected populations, including enabling women heads of households and persons with disabilities to access well-paid and socially well-regarded formal employment opportunities. 

The demining workforce earns a salary above the local average — and significantly higher than what they were receiving before joining the mine action sector. For female staff, this is especially the case.

The average annual salary for women increased 3.5 times after joining mine action. For men, it increased 1.7 times on entering the sector. As the country moves towards becoming landmine-free in the coming years, it is vital to ensure that these groups can make the most of their experience and skills gained in the mine action sector. It is also important, and incumbent on employers and organisations like MAG, that these women and men are supported to transition into mainstream employment.

A medic working with MAG in Sri Lanka

Mine action is a human-resource intensive sector that employs over 2,500 staff in Sri Lanka. The scale of the staff demobilisation, therefore, should not be underestimated. Lessons learned from Mozambique, which was declared mine-free in September 2015, have highlighted the importance of early planning for transitioning a large workforce to alternative employment. Cognisant of that example, MAG, in 2020, developed a dedicated staff transition strategy. 

MAG developed the strategy in partnership with other in-country civilian demining operators (HALO, DASH and SHARP), the GICHD and the National Mine Action Centre.

The three-phrase strategy is designed to be implemented before and during the gradual staff demobilisation process, until the completion of clearance and phase out. 

The first phase aims to enhance staff readiness — by bridging employability skills — and keep morale and motivation up until clearance completion. It covers a wide range of interventions — such as a financial literacy programme, Tamil literacy classes, language training, orientation and referral to commercial-oriented agriculture initiatives. Individualised support and access to vocational training courses for in-demand occupations will be provided during the second pilot redundancy phase and, again, when scaling up the final redundancy phase. 

In March 2021, MAG collaborated with the local IDEAs Consultancy organisation to kick-start the rollout of the first phase, with the delivery of a financial literacy programme to around 80 female and male staff. The programme aims to help optimise the use of monthly salary and focus on financial planning. 

It combined group training with individual financial counselling sessions for those who expressed the need for further assistance. Positive changes observed following the three-month programme included: 

Budgeting practices to reduce unnecessary expenses

  • S Anton Michel, a male community liaison team leader, commented: “I have made photocopies of the expense recording form given at the training, and handed them over to my wife to keep track of expenses. She duly completed the form and was ‘shocked’ by our monthly expenses. My wife now handles all purchasing for our home and we have been able to reduce our expenses and start saving.”

Savings mobilisation

  • Kalyani, a female deminer, commented: “All the savings that I had to my name were one hen and one cock. Immediately after the training, I initiated a standing order of Rs.2,000/- per month.”

Better loan management

  • A P Alfred, a male deputy team leader, commented: “I asked many questions before applying for a new housing loan from the Bank Officer, especially with regards to the interest rate and method of calculation, documentation and other charges. The Bank Officer asked whether I have a family member who is a Banker, or with vast experience in dealing with financial institutions. I replied that I have just undergone financial literacy training.”

MAG team leaving to start work after the daily briefing in Sri Lanka

The ongoing strategy is only possible thanks to the Government of Sri Lanka and the past and continued support from our donors, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, the US and the EU. These donors have contributed to and continue helping Sri Lanka to become a landmine-free country.

Developing and implementing the strategy would also not have been possible without close coordination across the mine action sector in-country, led by the National Mine Action Centre (NMAC). And expanding the range of stakeholders and partners to include private and public sectors organisations. 

Continued support and collaboration will be key to the ultimate success of the transition programme.