Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Thursday, September 23, 2010

2003 alum applies understanding of gender to reduce landmine risk

A little gender analysis mixed with hip-hop and rap music can go a long way in making the world more peaceful.

Again and again, La Follette School alum Kristen Rasmussen sees how understanding the different roles Cambodian men and women can play in village life can translate into fewer villagers being killed or maimed by landmines left from nearly 30 years of war.

Rasmussen singing into microphone and holding sheet of lyrics.  

Above: Kristen Rasmussen, far right, with concert consultant Chrin Sothy, International Women's Development Agency colleague and University of Wisconsin–Madison alum Catherine Cecil and rapper and trainer DJ Sdey. Left: Rasmussen shows youth a few rapping tips. Bottom of page: Young rappers in Cambodia's Battambang Province celebrate.

Rasmussen builds international development career

Kristen Rasmussen knew securing a job with an international non-governmental organization would be a challenge, even with her Master of International Public Affairs from the La Follette School. Read more …

Rasmussen spent more than three of the six years that she has lived in Cambodia since graduating from La Follette in 2003 helping people devise better strategies for clearing landmines and unexploded ordnance. As a project coordinator with the International Women's Development Agency, Rasmussen led the Community Strengthening and Gender Mainstreaming in Integrated Mine Action Project and organized a music competition to remind young men about the dangers of tampering with landmines.

One of every 300 Cambodians is an amputee because of landmines. Eighty percent of people hurt in mine explosions had attended an education session about the risks of mines.

"In the villages, women and men face different risks from landmines," Rasmussen says. "Men are more at risk of accidents in fields and forests, while women are more likely to be injured or killed closer to villages or water sources. It's imperative that planning for landmine clearance factor in these differences and that officials setting the priority areas for clearance hear from men and women."

"Rural Cambodian women are often not involved in political and public affairs," Rasmussen says, "so we focused on helping women feel confident in speaking up about their priorities for mine clearance in order to directly involve them the clearance planning process."

The pilot project in 2009 trained local volunteers about gender awareness and effective meeting facilitation to increase involvement in plans for clearing mines, Rasmussen says. The volunteers built on their village and gender networks to hold public meetings to gather information and draw maps of the areas contaminated by landmines. The information was presented to village chiefs to pass on to the provincial government.

Risks from landmines change by age as well as gender. Boys and men ages 12 to 22 have the greatest incidence of injuries related to tampering with unexploded ordnance. To better inform them about the dangers of landmines, Rasmussen organized a music competition, "Rapping Against Risk," in three villages with the highest mine fatalities. Participants submitted original songs about the danger of landmines. A concert featured the songs, and the winning piece was used in a radio ad broadcast in areas of Cambodia contaminated with landmines.

"Tampering with landmines is a specific behavioral activity people, especially young men, carry out for thrills," Rasmussen says. "If one thinks about the situation structurally, young men tamper as a way of forming their gender identity. Others tamper with mines to make money from selling the scrap metal."

"Rapping Against Risk" has been the highlight of Rasmussen's consulting work in Cambodia, she says. The project's dual focus on mainstreaming gender considerations at the policy level and at the project level was unique. It also was the first time Rasmussen worked so closely with youth. "I was inspired by their commitment to making positive change," she says. "Working in a developing country with extremely high levels of corruption and low social capital can be very discouraging at times, so it was great to see such genuine engagement, commitment, and integrity among young Cambodians."

Large group of rappers in Cambodia.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the fall 2010 La Follette Notes.