Informal mining neglects safety standards and puts health at significant risk - are women aware of these dangers? When women enter poorly regulated mines there is the potential for a mother who is responsible for feeding her family to die. In South Africa I saw a disused mine being illegally extracted by workers with no shoes, no helmet and using candles in an underground coal mine – a hazard, since an explosion could happen at any time. People were so desperate, men and women kept digging to get coal to sell despite the site being closed and unsafe. In Mali, women are working in mining sites with artisanal miners and extracting gold by rubbing mercury with their bare hands. I saw a woman sat with her baby breastfeeding with one hand and rubbing mercury concentration in the other – directly exposing her child to poison. She had no idea of the consequences.
You’ve worked extensively across Africa; do you see the issue of increasing female representation as continentwide, or are some countries making progress? There is a higher level of awareness in some countries. Tanzania is a model for other African countries; the Government is really getting involved and supporting the mainstreaming of gender through platforms such as the Tanzania Women Miners Association. In a lot of other African countries there is so little awareness that it is not even talked about, let alone on the agenda. If mining companies have a gender equality charter to abide by they could have targeted support for women, particularly on the technical side. This might stem the tide of women drifting from the technical fields to what is often referred to as softer skills, like community affairs. On the ground, women working in mines are exposed to severely dangerous environments, which raises human rights issues and abuses.
Finally, migration is having a large impact on employment worldwide. What impact is this having on women in mining? Migration means communities are changing and people from different cultures and values are coming together. Cultural beliefs and stigma can heavily affect women, particularly in informal mining communities, so women become more vulnerable to abuse.
Dr Nellie Mutemeri is a senior specialist at AngloGold Ashanti and an Associate Professor at the Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa.
Women working in mines are exposed to severely dangerous environments, which raises human rights issues and abuses.