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The Effect of Covid-19 on Women in Artisanal Mining

Tina Blazquez-Lopez

Counsel, BCLP, Dubai


Image Credit: Tommy Trenchard/IDRC

Artisanal and small-scale mining (“Artisanal Mining”) is an extremely complex and widely diverse sector. There is no homogeneous definition and the practice ranges from wholly informal subsistence mining using handheld tools to operations which have access to mechanised technologies and small-scale processing plants.


According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development 2018 the sector is estimated to produce approximately 80% of global sapphire production, 20% of gold mining, 20% of diamond mining, 26% of global tantalum and 25% of all tin. According to the World Bank, there are approximately 100 million artisanal miners globally in approximately 80 countries worldwide, 30% of which are women.

Women face a number of existing challenges in Artisanal Mining and the impact of COVID-19 will not be gender neutral. The response to COVID-19 in the sector must recognise that women in Artisanal Mining communities are disproportionately impacted by the virus. Also, that women within these communities will be crucial to the successful implementation of any mitigation and recovery strategies.


Women in Mining

Women make up a large portion of the Artisanal Mining workforce and although few actually go into the mines, they are a significant part of the mineral value chain working in extraction, transport and trade of minerals. Activities undertaken include sorting, sluicing, washing, panning, sieving, mercury-gold amalgamation, crashing and amalgam decomposition.

Women face a number of structural, institutional and cultural challenges in the mining sector. This has meant that their participation in the most value bearing activities is low. Challenges faced in the Artisanal Mining sector include lack of ownership, control and access to resourceful land and an inability to access finance to invest in essential equipment in order to upscale activities. Women working in the Artisanal Mining sector also lack access to technology and the geological data needed for successful mining operations. Market access is also low or non-existent for many women in Artisanal Mining.


The Effect of COVID-19 on Women in Artisanal Mining

The effects of, and measures introduced to contain the spread of COVID-19 are likely to exacerbate the existing inequalities faced by women in Artisanal Mining and further expose them to health and safety issues including increased gender based violence.

Lockdowns have forced women back into the home where their share of unpaid work is likely to increase. School closures mean that women are more likely to take on the primary responsibility for childcare and housework as well as taking care of the sick and elderly. Many live in abject poverty and in communities with poor access to reliable energy, and internet access is either limited or non-existent. This will make any form of home schooling difficult and, unfortunately, some children may never return to school.


Economic crises and severe external shocks can impact young girls disproportionately. Simple things such as access to feminine hygiene products can mean that girls stay in the home. Young girls may also be required to stay at home to assist with increased household chores and, in some communities, are at greater risk of early marriage.

Pandemics and other crisis situations can also lead to increased levels of both physical and sexual based violence against women and children. Quarantine and forced social isolation coupled with poverty related stress can mean that women are left face to face with their abusers with no means of relief or escape.


Access to Justice

Access to justice for women is a key issue that must be addressed in the current pandemic. As lockdowns are imposed, courts in a number of jurisdictions have closed and proceedings delayed. In jurisdictions where access to justice for women is not always guaranteed, this causes great concern. The World Bank, in collaboration with the International Development Law Organisation, UN Women, UNDP, UNODC and The Elders Foundation, launched the “Justice for Women Amidst COVID-19 Report”, which highlights the challenges faced by women in times of pandemic.


We are likely to see increased delays in adjudicating divorce, domestic violence and the issuance of restraining and child protection orders. Inheritance and land claims are also likely to augment existing case backlogs. In jurisdictions that do not have developed e-justice systems or capacity to operate remotely using video or tele conference facilities, the impact is likely to be greater. As part of the COVID-19 response, and as the formal court system struggles to adapt to the “new normal”, increased investment in customary and informal justice systems, which have been traditionally under-funded, may be beneficial.


Leveraging Women in Artisanal Mining for Solutions

Women form a significant portion of subsistence farmers, providing most of the labour required to produce food crops. The central role of women in food security and the management of household water and energy needs mean that they are acutely aware of the interlinkages between food security and mining and the environmental threat posed by Artisanal Mining. Women in Artisanal Mining are therefore well positioned to lead and to help to mitigate a number of the negative effects of Artisanal Mining. This will inevitably help to promote better practices and to build a more integrated and sustainable model for rural development.


Access to open and affordable finance and credit lines is fundamental to the survival of small and informal businesses. Focused strategies for a COVID-19 response in the Artisanal Mining sector may include microfinance initiatives and gender focused banks in villages with incentives to encourage land ownership for women. Government and regulatory entities should also look at the process of how mining licences are awarded and how the criteria is applied to, and enforced with respect to, women.


Networks which encourage the pooling of mining equipment and technology among women could also be extremely beneficial. Information sharing and providing access in local communities to the market price of commodities is also crucial in enabling women to achieve fair market value for minerals. The provision of institutional services such as affordable childcare facilities would also be a game changer. Targeting women with progressive education at all levels of the Artisanal Mining supply chain is also fundamental in promoting sustainable economic development and achieving a reduction in poverty. Basic skills training, literacy support and training in how to access information should also be a priority. Women should also be supported in the professions to become engineers, geologists, electrical engineers and surveyors.

Conclusion

As steps are taken to ease lockdown restrictions around the world, the effects of COVID-19 are likely to be long term. It is important that the road to recovery includes a gendered response if we are not to undo much of the good work already done in terms of gender equality and poverty reduction. Dr. James Emmanuel Kwegyir-Aggrey, a Ghanaian statesman, famously said, “If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family nation.” Targeting women in Artisanal Mining has the potential to touch on all 17 of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. Therefore, gender equality, generally and within Artisanal Mining, must be a key priority for governments in order to achieve inclusive growth and sustainable economic and social development in a post COVID-19 world.

Tina Blazquez-Lopez is Counsel in the law offices of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP) in Dubai.

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Institute for African Women in Law (c) All rights reserved.