Mining, men and migration
What challenges do you face in the mining industry?
I’ve been in the mining sector all my professional life, so the issue of gender has always been present.
In the 1980s, I began my career in the UK as one of two girls in a class of 24 men. I would go underground and you could see that people were shocked: I was in a mine and not a miner.
A few years ago, on a trip to a mining site, I was subject to abuse but generally discrimination is based on attitude. Often you are made to feel like what you are doing is trivial and people make fun of gender initiatives. I sat in an interview once and was asked: “Would you choose a team of women or a team of men?” A question I refused to answer. Women are not always taken seriously, particularly in mining companies.
How unequal is the mining industry?
One could argue that women are excluded from accessing privately-owned and regulated mines because of low levels of education. Without simple literary skills, women are unable to fill in the licensing form, and are subsequently held back from putting a case forward to access finances and own property. They start one step behind. Women are on the periphery; sitting outside of the mines, selling food or worse, selling their bodies.
With the growth of informal mines, governments must protect women’s livelihood opportunities. There is a lack of awareness around women who work in the mining sector. It is never talked about and the fault lies in consultation Women are not consulted despite being stakeholders. Women are not given a voice and are excluded from policies and strategies. I see my role as an advocate for sector-wide change. As a respected practitioner, I think people are seeing the value in bringing women into the conversation.
To what extent does informal mining neglect safety standards?
In South Africa, I saw people with no shoes, no helmet and using candles in an underground disused coal mine – a hazard, since an explosion could happen at any time. People were so desperate they just 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 have worked extensively across Africa, do you see the issue of increasing female representation as continent-wide, 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 many other African countries there is so little awareness that it is not even talked about, let alone on the agenda.
Mining companies should have a gender equality charter to abide by. Often, women drift from technical fields to what is often referred to as ‘softer’ skills, such as community affairs. We need more women on the technical side.
Migration has 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.
Key areas of development, such as climate change, extractives and governance have historically been viewed as gender neutral, or even gender blind. How can we close the gender gap? Find out here.