Plight of female artisanal miners

18 Apr, 2016 - 00:04 0 Views
Plight of female artisanal miners

The Herald

The venturing of women into artisanal gold mining has not been without its challenges

The venturing of women into artisanal gold mining has not been without its challenges

Ruth Butaumocho
A hot dry wind envelopes Mrs Ruramai Mupereki (59) as she kneels over to pick a metal tin laden with ore from the banks of Odzi River in Zimbabwe’s Manicaland Province.

Mrs Mupereki’s daughter, Tariro (not her real name) scrambles down the swampy edge of the river bed to collect ore and pass it on to her mother, already showing strains of fatigue under the scorching mid-morning sun.

But she cannot afford to sit, because the ore has to be pounded by mortar and pestle in the evening in preparations for “buyers” the following day.

“I can’t wait for my daughter to finish school so that I can rest,” she says, barely audible, fearing that Tariro will pick the pain and despair, clearly distinct in her voice.

Mrs Mupereki is among thousands of women surviving on artisanal mining, despite the dangers associated with the trade.

Traditionally mining is an adult male domain, but economic hardship and declining agricultural production have forced women and children into this sector, especially in gold mining.

Each day, the majority of women in mining areas endowed with gold deposits trudge along the trenches to dig and collect whatever they can lay their hands on.

Sometimes the process is arduous and laborious, never mind the challenges they encounter and endure such as the health dangers of using mercury, collapse of the dug out holes and even sexual abuse by their male counterparts.

But they cannot abandon the trade.

It is their survival, their life and the only form of employment, they know.

“I come here every day to dig for gold. Sometimes I get enough grams to send to the mill and buy food and pay fees for my children.

“I am not always lucky though. There have been days when I have had to go home empty handed,” said 33-year old Silita Kaitano at Pickstone Mine in Chegutu.

The venturing by women into artisanal gold mining is full of challenges.

Apart from rampant abuse by their male colleagues, women in artisanal mining have to contend with a lot of challenges among them lack of proper equipment, pollution, low returns and poor working conditions.

While large scale mining by extractive industries is the main form of mining, small scale and unregulated artisanal mining is widespread.

According to Mr Wellington Takavarasha, chairperson of Zimbabwe Artisanal and Small Scale Mining Council, there are an estimated 500 000 artisanal miners and of these 153 000 are women and children.

“Traditionally mining is an adult male domain, but economic hardship and declining agricultural production have forced women and children into this sector, especially in gold mining,” he said.

The greatest challenge women face in artisanal mining is being unable to fully participate in the actual digging of the gold ore by virtue of being women and physically not suited to the gruelling work.

This aspect forces women to depend on men to do the digging during the day and guard the ore at night. These men may be employed by the women if funds permit or are there by some special agreement in proceeds sharing.

A study conducted by Centre for Natural Resource Governance in Bindura in Mashonaland Central at Kitsiyatota revealed that although women owned the claims, men had a stake by providing the labour.

“Men get 50 percent of the ore and the claim owner gets the other 50 percent after transport and milling costs. In other studies women worked on the periphery of the sector, providing water for washing ore, pounding and sifting or panning for alluvial deposits,” revealed the study.

A female artisanal miner from Penhalonga said life in the “trenches” was difficult.

“Because of the dangers involved in the digging, we end up asking male colleagues to assist us.

“Since we are usually unable to pay them before taking our ore to the mill, we end up sharing the money after selling gold,” she said.

She conceded that the alliances they form with their male colleagues are neither equal nor fair, but they are essential.

During the survey that was carried out, women claimed that they are accused of being lazy or weak, and undeserving of much. Other complaints centred on allegations that women, because of their reproductive roles in the homes, cannot guard ore at night and the men take advantage and syphon gold ore.

“The women who participated in the surveys that were carried out claimed they have to contend with men dressed in undergarments in some cases.

“The language used is often crude and abusive towards the women. Alcohol and drug (marijuana) use is prevalent. Children as young as 11 working around the sites are exposed to bad language, substance abuse and premature sexual activity,” said Mrs Rudo Mgodi, Gender and Extractives Officer for Centre for Natural Resource and Governance.

The lure of money has also resulted in early pregnancies by often uncommitted and migrant men who have families back home.

While consensual sex is a feature of the mining sites, the rise of transactional sex itself is a major moral and health concern.

In Bindura the men spoke of a gambler mentality and how the arrival of beautiful “orange” women (women who bleach their skin) from as far as Bulawayo and Mutare meant a huge portion of their earnings was lost to transactional sex.

The survey noted that in Penhalonga there was a syndicate of male agents who brought women from Mozambique to the miners and demanded a percentage of the going rate, fuelling the problem of trafficking.

“This trafficking of women for the sex trade is a serious concern. At a broader level unregulated artisanal mining further entrenches unfair, unequal and degrading treatment of women that is usually promoted in patriarchal society,” said Ms Mgido.

Women’s struggle for livelihoods has brought them to the periphery of the mining fields as vendors of water, fruits and vegetables. Some provide catering services. Only a few are claim- owners and have a measure of control and decision making power over the mining value chain.

As they fight for leverage in terms of income and control of the mines, women are also finding themselves on the receiving end of health hazards associated with using mercury in processing gold.

A pilot study conducted by the Centre for Natural Resource Governance in Kadoma showed that the women tested had 25 percent higher mercury level in their breast milk than is considered safe by the World Health Organisation.

The unchecked use of mercury makes the chemical seep into water sources and contaminating them, putting many at risk of illness.

Despite the challenges chronicled above, women, children and men continue to pursue artisanal mining as a livelihood option.

This is a result of lack of alternatives as the country battles to leverage the economic challenges that have been further compounded by the El-Nino induced drought.

Although the success stories are few and far between, the majority of women who are in the sector say they will not abandon the trade soon.

Although there are unconfirmed stories of women who worked in the Marange diamond fields and spoke of rich pickings, the majority just earn enough to put food on the table.

But like everyone else, these women desire to continue mining but within a supportive, sustainable and safe framework.

“The need for funding and technical support is urgent and government needs to intensify its efforts in this area.

“The formalisation of artisanal mining will protect vulnerable women and children, exclude child labour and plug the leakage of illicit financial flows by removing the parallel gold market,” said Mr Takavarasha.

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