According to researchers, small-scale mining is a huge source of revenue in Africa. The industry provides jobs for millions who, in turn, support millions more. Mining is a male-dominated industry and bars women from the best-paying jobs – which happen to be underground. Work in the tunnels and shafts is considered either “too taxing” for women or it is viewed as culturally unacceptable for women to perform those tasks.
Instead, women are often limited to lower-paid tasks such as pumping water, carrying rocks, or washing and grinding rocks. In some cases, food vending and sex work also feature, according to a 2018 report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Women still opt for these lesser tasks, however, because even though they are paid less than men, they earn six times more than they would receive for other available jobs. According to the African Centre for Economic Transformation, while women account for about 40 to 50 percent of Africa’s 8 million artisanal miners, their average income is significantly lower than that of their male counterparts.
However, the issue runs far deeper than financial independence alone. For many women, earning money through artisanal mining provides a degree of emancipation from male-controlled, lineage-based land ownership and oppressive cultural practices such as child marriage or the uncertainty of disenfranchisement in a polygamous marriage.
Women breaking through
The International Development Research Centre (IDRC), a corporation that invests in knowledge, innovation and solutions to improve lives and livelihoods in the so-called “developing” world, interviewed Ugandan miner Mariam Nakacho. She has managed to break away from the roles generally ascribed to women to become a part-owner of a mine shaft.
“Women here face a lot of challenges,” she explained. “We are always scared, but we just have to deal with the situation. We stay because we need the money.”
In the past Nakacho, like her female counterparts, worked for a flat fee for every sack of ore she processed in very tough working and living conditions. “There were no toilets, no healthcare and no services. Sanitation was a big problem. And we were always scared of being raped or robbed,” said Nakacho, who is too afraid to climb the hill to her mine shaft alone after dark. “These things happened to some of my friends.”
Despite the odds, Nakacho managed over time to accumulate the 1.2 million Ugandan shillings (about US$315) needed to buy a share in a mine shaft. Her diggers eventually struck gold and within three months she was able to buy a new house.
“When you have money, you can have whatever you like,” said Nakacho. “You can live well. Now I have a furnished home and I can pay for my children’s school fees.”
What is her advice to other women? “If I were to advise other women coming to the mine, I would tell them to be very careful,” Nakacho responded. “But if they have wisdom and a little capital, they should come.”
Tanzanian goldminer Teresa Samwel described her experience to Ozy.com. Tanzania sits on an estimated 2 222 metric tons of gold and boasts the third-highest reserve of the metal in Africa.
“I got a mining licence in my name because I saw that gold pays, and now the mine helps me a lot,” says Samwel.
Mining has enabled her to build a house, support her children’s education and has helped with her son’s marriage — all thanks to the gold. “I have decided to do it myself, so I get all the profit. I can’t get the same amount from farming,” she says
Pushing for change
The Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women programme (GrOW), a partnership between the UK’s Department for International Development, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the IDRC, is seeking to identify solutions that would address the barriers preventing women from fully participating in the economy.
According to the IDRC’s senior programme specialist, Martha Melesse, the project goal is to increase the visibility of women’s roles in the artisanal and small-scale mining sector and to highlight the barriers they face, so that mining reforms and regulations recognise their contribution and take appropriate measures to enhance their livelihoods.
“Millions of women work in artisanal and small-scale mining, yet discussions about mining policies and practices rarely recognise the roles of women,” said Melesse. “The same holds true for deliberations about mining regulations and reforms. This risks exacerbating gender inequality. It can also undermine women’s livelihoods.”
Similarly, the Solidaridad Network, an international civil society organisation, has trained 610 women miners in Tanzania’s northwestern Geita region. The focus was on leadership skills, finance management and how to obtain a mining licence. As a result, 20 women now hold leadership positions in their mines.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Canadian organisation IMPACT has established loan associations for artisanal goldminers with female leaders. Their research showed that women were often denied access to credit and leadership opportunities despite being members of informal savings groups.
Women are often denied access to credit despite being members of informal savings groups.
With consistent interventions of organisations such as the above and the continued success of women miners breaking through the physical and cultural barriers associated with the industry, communities are on course to be enriched by an even higher influx of income and the eventual dismantling of gender disparity.