Deminer Tetiana Shpak crouched down in a once tranquil poppy-strewn field in southern Ukraine, now littered with Russian mines.

Just a few years ago this scene would have been impossible – until 2018 women were banned from becoming deminers, a profession long considered too dangerous for them.

“I did not think that my path would lead here,” said the 51-year-old former math teacher whose face was covered with a thick protective mask.

But the Russian invasion in February 2022 changed that.

After first helping to build fortifications to repel Moscow's soldiers and then losing her father in a bombardment, Shpak said she “really wanted to be useful.”

More women like her are joining mine-clearance teams, where they now account for 30 percent of personnel, according to official data.

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A similar trend has unfolded in other professions once dominated by men that have been drained of labor by mobilization and emigration.

“The family was initially against it, of course,” said Shpak, who has been working for the Halo Trust mine-clearing organization in Snigurivka, in the southern Mykolaiv region, for the past year.

Her teenage daughter, in particular, was “nervous.”

But Shpak told her that the work is safe, as she only locates mines while other teams actually detonate them.

“Now my daughter says that when she grows up, she will also try something similar,” Shpak told AFP.

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While she does not see herself as a role model, she said she would “like to see more women doing this kind of work.”

‘More attentive’

Valeria Ponomareva, a 23-year-old former hairdresser who leads a team of deminers, says women can have advantages in this line of work.

“Girls are more attentive, careful,” she told AFP.

She said her mother was “shocked” but she has no regrets about her “dramatic” career change.

“For the prosperity of Ukraine our work is necessary,” Ponomareva said.

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Ukraine's ranks of female deminers boast a former ballerina, a chemist who used to produce sparkling wine and a dentist, the Halo Trust says.

Ponomareva comes from the eastern Donetsk region, one of the most heavily mined areas in the country where war has raged since 2014.

Russian forces laid mines around Snigurivka when it was under their control for much of 2022.

Elsewhere, Ukrainian troops have also left a trail of their own explosives which they hope will thwart Russian advances.

According to the interior ministry almost a quarter of the country could be “contaminated with mines and explosive devices.”

More than 270 people have been killed in mine blasts since Russia invaded in February 2022, according to Kyiv.

‘Want to serve’

The conditions facing Ukraine's deminers are tough.

They need to be methodical, patient and ready to work outside whatever the weather.

In early June, temperatures were already well above 30 degrees Celsius.

Recruitment is not easy, said Oleksandr Ponomarenko, who supervises a clearance team.

Some “come, work one or two days and realize it's not for them. And they leave,” he said.

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For now, women make up just under half of his unit but he hopes that this proportion will grow.

Standing not far from an anti-tank mine discovered by his team, he says women who are married to soldiers fighting on the front are likely candidates.

“They also kind of want to serve, but they realize that this job is safer.”

The task they face is immense: a group of seven people can clear just 80-100 square meters of land a day. 

The field in Snigurivka alone was around 35,000 square meters – meaning at least another year of work, said Ponomarenko, who carries a Ukrainian flag pinned to his flak jacket.

Across the entire country, demining is expected to take decades.

And as the conflict grinds on, land that has already been cleared could yet be re-mined.

‘Curious observers’

A few kilometers away, in the village of Vasylivka, a team had recently cleared a plot of land belonging to Mykola Murai, a 60-year-old farmer.

“Everything was covered in mines,” he said, relieved he could once again earn an income from the field. 

The sight of female deminers had caught him off guard at first, he admitted.

“I was surprised, of course, at first I thought it was just some curious observers,” he told AFP.

He was soon convinced though, after his field had been combed through and cleared.

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“I think they work better than men,” Murai said.

Surprise is a common first reaction to the female deminers, said Iryna Nomerovska, who heads a land surveyance unit. 

“The population does not really accept young girls working in demining. They think it's a bit strange,” she said.

Nomerovska, a trained economist who decided to help demining efforts after living under Russian occupation at the start of the war, said she is “very proud” of her work.

After all, she added: “Who else can do it but us?”

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