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Not Just Counting Their Numbers, But Making Women Artisanal Miners Count

Maame Esi Eshun

[caption id="attachment_11091" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Women gold miners in Burkina Faso. Photo by Ollivier Girard for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), via Flickr. Creative Commons.[/caption]

Africa's artisanal mining sector — mining characterized by the use of rudimentary tools and labor-intensive techniques to extract minerals from the ground — is distinguished by its huge female workforce. In Africa, women make up an average of 40 to 50 percent of the artisanal mining workforce, compared to the world average of 30 percent. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for instance, 50 percent of the artisanal mining workforce is female, similar to the percentage of illegal women artisanal miners in Ghana. In Sudan's Southern Blue Nile region, it is estimated that 35 percent of artisanal gold miners are women, and in Mali and Burkina Faso, 50 percent of artisanal miners are women, with women in particular responsible for 90 percent of mineral processing.

Why Do Women Become Artisanal Miners?

For many women the artisanal mining sector has a relative ease of entry, in comparison to other sectors. As it requires virtually no formal education or skills and little or no capital, artisanal mining provides an important source of livelihood for women who lack basic education and have few economic opportunities available to them.

In Mali and Burkina Faso, women's high level of participation in artisanal mining has been explained partly by climate change, which has increased the frequency of natural disasters. They have caused the current droughts, famine, and food crop shortages which threatens millions of livelihoods, driving many "non-miners" into artisanal mining, including women.

Where agriculture used to be the dominant economic activity but is no longer viable, women are compelled to engage in artisanal mining. For conflict and post-conflict African countries like the DRC, Sudan, and the Central African Republic, women's participation in artisanal mining has been linked to displacement from past conflicts and wars which have destroyed farmlands and crops and resulted in limited livelihood opportunities. As one woman from the DRC notes:

"Before the war, the fields produced…now we make money by…carrying things from the mines. What has changed life now is that the fields no longer produce and our husbands are no longer working."

In addition, where the support of their male partners is limited, women are left to shoulder the responsibilities of caring for the household, including providing the basic necessities of life and paying for their children's school fees. One woman miner recounts that:

"Even though we are not yet making that much money, the good thing is that we have stood up as women to fend for ourselves. We are actually doing better than some men, and I am proud of the fact that I singlehandedly feed my twin daughters and can afford money for their primary education, clothes and other basic needs."

The Challenge

Women artisanal miners contend with serious challenges. In some mines, women are forced to work pounding minerals men dig up. Sexual abuse is widespread. In Eastern DRC, for instance, 4 in 10 women artisanal miners are sexually abused before being allowed access to the mines. An increased vulnerability to sexual exploitation, which is often seen as normal, especially in most conflict and post-conflict African countries, as well as a lack of access and right to land, and wage discrimination are typical of artisanal mining operations. Findings by the Environmental Law Institute show that most women in African mines work longer hours than men but earn on average about four times less. Women also bear the brunt of the environmental and social risks associated with mining through the loss of productive agricultural land, marginalization, and an increase in health risks including HIV/AIDS.

Women are not prioritized in employment and training opportunities in artisanal mining, are overlooked in the payment of compensation and royalties, and are not involved during consultations preceding project implementation and decision-making along the mining value chain. Moreover, in many African countries, both men and women artisanal miners face extreme difficulty in acquiring mining licenses to operate legally. For women artisanal miners in particular, their limited technical knowledge of geology and exploration data, and the lack of appropriate machinery and technology limits their gains from the sector.

 "Some people in positions of power create too many obstacles for women to own mining claims, making them wait in hope or simply not giving them priority or information on time when such opportunities arise" – Happiness Mbula, Tanzania

"I have challenges with compensation, meeting chiefs and the communities. As a female everyone looks down on you in the village and wants to cheat you. You are always seen as a threat so I have to keep proving myself capable." – Amina Tahiru, Ghana

Finally, empirical research has shown that traditional beliefs and discriminatory cultural practices frame the rules governing the work women can engage in at mining sites. For instance, in some artisanal mining communities, the direct participation of women in underground mining activities is prohibited for fear that women's presence brings ill-luck or will make minerals disappear. Thus widespread cultural beliefs prevent women from fully reaching their potential in artisanal mining and explain why their role in artisanal mining is often marginal.

Making Women Artisanal Miners Count: The Case for Formalizing Artisanal Mining Activities and More

Artisanal mining can generate 'peace dividends' at the local and national level, and generate economic growth that supports the underlying socioeconomic conditions for peace by significantly supplementing household incomes to bolster the national economy. To harness these dividends however, governments have a key role to play.

The unregulated and informal nature of artisanal mining activities must be brought into the legal domain and formalized through well-enforced legislative requirements. Formalization would benefit all artisanal miners, and women miners in particular, if done effectively. In Ghana, for instance, because women comprise 15 percent of the legal and 50 percent of the illegal artisanal mining workforce, they are disproportionately disadvantaged by the existing legal framework. Hence, the laws, policies, and reforms that govern a formalized artisanal mining sector should be gender-sensitive, take into account the needs and interests of women, and recognize their vulnerabilities in the sector. This will ultimately enhance the monitoring of human and gender rights in the sector, particularly with reference to sexual abuse, violence, and women's health issues.

Formalizing all artisanal mining activities will improve the allocation of natural resource rights and access (land and mineral rights). Ensuring better natural resource rights and access will enable greater participation of women in the sector and address the interpersonal and community conflicts that arise over resource use and access.

It is also important to reform the unnecessarily frustrating, costly, and lengthy administrative registration processes for artisanal miners. Simplifying this process will encourage more illegal artisanal miners (including women) to register and obtain licenses to formalize their operations. For women artisanal miners, forming syndicates such as "women mining networks" can help them raise the needed funds or money to register and formalize their operations, which would help them become eligible for more grants, credits, and other funding. Women's syndicates have also proven critical in advocacy to improve working conditions for women and raise awareness with governments and policymakers on the important policy issues facing women in mining.

Governments, through effective partnerships with the large-scale mining companies, should also focus formalization policies and strategies on community-based natural resource management programs through the inclusion of an interdisciplinary model of training for women artisanal miners. Moving beyond capacity-building, these interdisciplinary models should include trainings in entrepreneurial mining management, geology, and efficient mineral extraction processing techniques. These trainings will help address the environmental issues associated with artisanal mining by ensuring efficient modern mining techniques that reduce waste.

Beyond formalization, ensuring the effective inclusion of women in artisanal mining also means providing the necessary conditions and empowerment structures to ensure women are fully integrated into the mining value chain. Most importantly, this should include the provision of sustainable livelihood options for women by encouraging value chain activities between the mining sector and other productive sectors like agriculture (which compete for similar inputs with the artisanal mining sector). For instance, industries that produce and supply inputs such as hand tools used in both artisanal mining and agriculture should be created and supported, to generate more competitive jobs which will serve as other means of sustenance, even for women. The rolling effect of women's empowerment will be reflected in their family health, nutrition, and improved children's education.


Benefiting from Africa's mineral resources can pose a range of challenges. However, under an appropriate policy and legal framework, coupled with enforcement and proper management, artisanal mining can become a tool to develop rural areas, enhance the public welfare, and ultimately make women count.

Maame Esi Eshun was a Southern Voices Network Scholar at the Wilson Center from May to July 2016. She is a Research Associate at the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), a member organization of the Southern Voices Network. 

About the Author

Maame Esi Eshun

Maame Esi Eshun

Former Southern Voices Network Scholar;
Regulatory Research Analyst at the Public Utilities Regulatory Commission, Ghana
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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more