PESHAWAR, 4 April 2008 (IRIN) - Palvasha Ahmed and her two younger sisters know all too well the risks posed by landmines.
"Our cousin, Maryum Ahmed, 19, was injured by a landmine nearly a year ago in her village in South Waziristan. She lost her right foot and now goes around on a crutch. No one will marry her," the 17-year old said in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
For most young women in the conservative NWFP and adjoining tribal areas, most of which lie along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, not getting married could well be the worst possible tragedy in life: Disabled girls are unlikely to be taken as brides and this means a life of dependence on their own family, who often sees them as a burden.
Palvasha, the daughter of a shopkeeper from South Waziristan who moved to Peshawar a few years ago to escape conflict between government forces and militants there, also explained: "My cousin could get only limited treatment because her father refuses to let her be examined by a male doctor."
This is the norm across much of the tribal areas, with access of women to healthcare gravely handicapped due to the traditional refusal to allow them contact with any man who is not a close family member.
Nearly 50 mine casualties in 2008
According to the Peshawar-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), SPADO, (Sustainable Peace and Development Organisation), which is engaged in a campaign against anti-personnel landmines and cluster bombs, there have been at least 48 casualties in Pakistan during the last three months caused by mines. For 2007 the figure stands at 184 and for 2006, 488.
Raza Shah Khan, executive director of SPADO, believes there are upwards of six million landmines in Pakistan, though no official figures are available.
However, according to a 2007 report by the international Landmine Monitor, Pakistan and its eastern neighbour India were the world's largest producers of landmines; together stockpiling at least 11 million antipersonnel mines.
In addition to areas along the Afghan border, the report said mines were still in place in Kashmir, a territory disputed between India and Pakistan, even though both sides claimed to have carried out de-mining operations along the Line of Control, the tentative border that separates Indian and Pakistani-administered parts of Kashmir.
"Villages in Poonch District here, near Indian-controlled territory, have many mines. The earthquake of October 2006 and also rains since then have caused mines from the Indian side to slip to Pakistani-controlled territory, which is located downhill," Muhammad Farooq, a social activist based in the town of Bagh in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, told IRIN.
Over 400 killed
The Ottawa-based Landmine Monitor states there have been at least 1,144 incidents involving landmines in Pakistan from 2002 to 2006, with at least 440 killed and 704 injured.
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In incidents since then, military personnel have been the most frequent victims, followed by children.
Landmines are being used by both militant insurgents and government forces, in internal conflicts against religious extremists in tribal areas of the NWFP and against nationalist elements in Pakistan's vast southwestern province of Balochistan.
"We hear regularly of injuries caused by landmines in areas where there is fighting, such as the Kohlu District," said Farid Ahmed, coordinator of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in Balochistan.
"Both militants and armed forces personnel use landmines, often planted along roadsides," he explained.
According to SPADO, most recent casualties have been reported from the North and South Waziristan agencies and the neighbouring Bajaur Agency.
This is both because the tribal territories lie along the Afghan border, which has been heavily mined since 1979 - the year the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan - and because mines continue to be used by militants battling Pakistani forces.
Settling local scores
Alarmingly, local tribes are reported to have begun using mines as a part of their arsenal against rival tribesmen or to settle personal feuds, adding to the number of mines on the ground in many areas.
Women, who often walk long distances to fetch water, or children, are frequently the victims of such mines. Their growing use by non-state militants, also means no records or maps exist as to where they have been placed.
Pakistan is among 37 countries in the world that are not yet signatories to the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, commonly known as the landmine ban treaty.
Organisations within the country continue to demand that it sign the agreement, but there is as yet no evidence this is likely to happen in the near future. Awareness regarding the issue or concern about the risk to civilians posed by landmines is still low, even though hundreds have been killed or maimed by the devices in recent years in tribal areas of the NWFP, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and in Balochistan.
© 2008 IRIN News