Exploring the plight of women in mining communities
By Vongai Mbara.
There is no doubt that Zimbabwe’s mining sector is male dominated and has over the years faced many challenges that range from gender discrimination, high levels of violence, child labour and safety issues.
Arguably, the mining industry has remained a de’ facto male preserve symbolised by the pervasiveness of socioeconomic restrictions on women.
Dimensions on discrimination against women in the extractive communities have remained partly addressed, passed over or discussed from a gender “neutral’ standpoint.
While there has been much pomp and fare about gender equality in Zimbabwe, we dive deep into some of the challenges that are being faced by women living in mining communities.
Gender Based Violence
Gender-based violence (GBV) or violence against women and girls (VAWG) is prevalent in Zimbabwe’s artisanal small-scale mining (ASM) sector.
In the face of the persistent economic meltdown and rising poverty levels, women and girls in ASM are trapped in a cycle of hardships and limited choices. Faced with these precarious conditions, patriarchy poses the biggest obstacle for women and girls to effectively exploit and benefit from ASM, as a means of livelihood.
“In mining communities there are also some cultural practices that expose women and girls to GBV. In this economic situation, most of the mines have scaled down while some have closed down leading to poverty for most families. This creates a burden on women and girls as they seek alternative survival tactics leaving them exposed to abuse at the hands of those who have the means to take care of them financially,” says Raymond Katsamba, Programs Officer at Zimbabwe AIDS Prevention and Support Organisation (ZAPSO).
Women living in the country’s mining areas are a constant target of Gender Based Violence (GBV) largely compounded by the living conditions. Previous research has shown that women and girls in most mining areas do not have access to basic social services such as water and affordable health care and this exposes them to GBV as they seek alternatives to access these services.
Institute for Young Women’s Development Knowledge Management, Documentation and Advocacy Co-ordinator; Tinotenda Chihera emphasized the importance of holding mining companies accountable to protect communities from abuse.
“It is unfortunate and heart-breaking that young women and women living in mining communities face a cocktail of violence,” Chihera said.
“The companies must be encouraged to follow the rules, regulations and laws of the country. The rights of women are clearly articulated in the Constitution as such no-one is above the law; they should be left with no choice but to conform.”
Women and Law in Southern Africa Director, Fadzai Traquino said failure by policymakers and other State agencies to regulate operations in the extractive industries exposed women to abuse.
“Government has signed a number of human rights treaties, therefore, it has a legal responsibility to monitor, implement and regulate the conduct of players and actors in the mining industry to ensure women are protected from all forms of GBV,” Traquino said.
“The vulnerabilities experienced by women have to do with unreported cases, impunity, weak enforcement and monitoring and low rate of convictions when cases are reported.”
Child marriages and child labor
Campaigns have been spearheaded by the Zimbabwe Gender Commission as part of efforts to reduce early marriages in areas where there are illegal gold panners.
According to national statistics, Matabeleland North alone has 32.9% cases of early marriages.In these communities, child marriages and unwanted pregnancies have become prevalent.
Research has shown that girls are married off or drawn into prostitution to earn a living for themselves and their siblings.
Child labor is also another ill faced by women living in mining communities.
Facing an uncertain economy, many women take their under-aged children to mining sites to help them carry out various activities, promoting child labor.
As a result, thousands of children; laced with dangerous chemicals used in mining are toiling in underground gold mines.
The country has however ratified all key International Conventions concerning child labor which include the International Labor Organization Convention related to minimum age or work.
The minimum age for hazardous work was set at 18 years. Child rights activists note that with the fragile economy, these measures seem to have no impact on the ground.
Discrimination and sexual abuse.
Women in mining communities are a vulnerable group that is often exposed to sexual harassment. A 2016-2019 Centre for Natural Resource Governance research revealed that women in mining communities were constant targets of domestic and sexual violence. Experts argue that women empowerment is vital as women play a significant role in providing for their families.
Traditions and Myths
Concerns have been raised over traditional myths in some Zimbabwean communities that prohibit women from taking part in any form of mining during their menstrual cycle. According to findings by the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA), certain Zimbabwean societies forbid women to mine during their monthly menstrual period.
“Myths and negative perceptions on women miners still exist in some sections and this has limited women’s participation,”
“At Stori’s in Mazowe, women are not allowed to participate in mining activities during their menstrual period. It is argued that transgressing this results in the disappearance of gold. These myths are a deliberate move to constrain women’s participation in sectors such as mining,” revealed ZELA Communications Officer, Clarity Sibanda.
HIV/AIDS and Sexual Health
Due to socio-cultural and socio-economic factors, members of small-scale mining communities, particularly ASGM communities, are especially vulnerable to Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) and other sexually-transmitted infections (STIs). Under-employment and related factors may encourage sex work, particularly among women.
Women’s health and safety
Women living in mining communities are exposed to contaminated water, hazardous chemicals like silica dust, dusts from manganese and other minerals, which may cause respiratory diseases, and also toxic chemicals like cyanide or mercury, used in extracting gold. The health of these women is compromised and millions of women and children die or are injured annually due to mining activities surrounding them.
Despite the numerous challenges highlighted above, women in mining communities have demonstrated enormous potential to achieve substantial financial gains and manage successful mining businesses. A number or key requirements need to be fulfilled to provide women with equal opportunities that enable their full participation in various mining activities. This will aid them in realizing their potential in contributing to sustainable livelihood development.