Women in artisanal mining: the hidden origins of our devices

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In our everyday lives, we are constantly surrounded by electronic devices, the presence of which is becoming more and more normalized to us. Yet, we rarely think of the materials which were used to make them. Raw materials such as cobalt and copper are required to produce electronic devices – and with more devices being produced and consumed every day, the demand for such materials, which are mined in resource-rich regions, only increases.

The first image that comes to mind in the context of mining is usually a large industrial site full of heavy machinery. However, almost 90% of the world’s mining workforce do not work in such large-scale industrial mines, but rather in what is called artisanal mining (ASM) – small-scale extraction of resources using rudimentary tools and basic equipment. Artisanal mining usually takes place in informal and often illegal settings in countries of the Global South, where settlements are rapidly established around mining sites. ASM is especially attractive to the rural poor of those regions, to whom it offers a rare opportunity of comparably well-paid employment.

There are, however, various issues surrounding ASM. Due to the informal nature of the work, working conditions are poor and dangerous, environmental pollution is rampant and toxic substances used in processing ore pose a serious health risk.

Women in the ASM sector face even more severe difficulties – and yet, many women are compelled to work in artisanal mining, since viable employment opportunities for women tend to be scarce, especially for those who are socially stigmatised, such as single mothers. Thus, as the scale of mining decreases, the role of women becomes more important. Around the world, women are involved in small scale mining as processors, panners and ore carriers, but also as providers of services within the mining community such as cooking, cleaning and domestic duties.

Most women in ASM earn only a fraction of what men are making. In combination with the unequal distribution of care work, this results in women having to work up to 8 hours more per day than men. Despite this, profits from artisanal mining almost always go to men, as most of the land, the shops and the tools are owned by men.

In addition, the combination of processing work and domestic duties exacerbates dangers to health caused by toxic substances. For example, in places where mercury is used to extract gold from ore, many women perform this task in their own home. Exposure to mercury is especially dangerous to pregnant women, since it increases the danger of miscarriages.

Another major issue is forced prostitution. In many cases, promises of money and well-paid work are used to lure young women to mining settlements and subsequently force them into prostitution. Additionally, since most mining settlements are outside the control of the law, there is also a high risk of sexual violence and drug abuse.

At the same time, the presence of women is essential for community stability and morale. Since women are in charge of domestic duties and provide many essential services within the communities, they are vital to the functioning of all mining settlements. Despite this, in most countries where ASM takes place, there is no special protection for women, legislative or otherwise. Policies concerning ASM and those who work as artisanal miners continue to be gender blind, as do many development initiatives, leaving women vulnerable to danger and oppression. Responsibility for women’s safety is thus relegated to NGOs, mining cooperatives and civil society organisations.

Still, the solution is not to prohibit ASM, which would push artisanal miners into illegality and insecurity and deprive poor regions of an important source of income. Instead, it has to be better regulated to guarantee the safety of workers, and workers have to be organized. There are already successful cases of women workers coming together in cooperatives to demand better safety equipment and better pay. To improve the situation and bolster the agency of women in artisanal mining, such organisations have to be strengthened and the networks between cooperatives, NGOs and civil society organisations have to be expanded. Just as importantly, gender mainstreaming needs to be incorporated into all relevant policy frameworks and development initiatives, both in the Global South and in the Global North, where most companies profiting from exploitation of women in ASM are based.

Within the context of the Electrònica Justa campaign, SETEM Catalunya is working towards achieving those goals by pushing for responsible public procurement and stricter due diligence laws, by raising awareness about the conditions faced by women in ASM and by working together with other initiatives and organisations advocating for fair working conditions in the mining sector. To end exploitation, technology companies need to be held accountable – and a different vision of digitalisation needs to be built, centred not on profit and consumption, but on the well-being of human beings.



LandLinks: Gender Issues in the Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining Sector, 2020, https://www.land-links.org/issue-brief/gender-issues-in-the-artisanal-and-small-scale-mining-sector/

Bester, Vidette: Breaking gender stereotypes. The role of women in artisanal mining, SLR Consulting 2023, https://www.slrconsulting.com/insights/breaking-gender-stereotypes-the-role-of-women-in-artisanal-mining/

Eftimie, Adriana; Heller, Katherine et al.: Gender Dimensions of Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining. A Rapid Assessment Toolkit, World Bank 2012, https://documents.worldbank.org/en/publication/documents-reports/documentdetail/644761468157780524/gender-dimensions-of-artisanal-and-small-scale-mining-a-rapid-assessment-toolkit

Hinton, Jennifer; Veiga, Marcello et al.: Women and Artisanal Mining. Gender Roles and the Road Ahead, in: The Socio-Economic Impacts of Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining in Developing Countries, Swets Publishers 2003, https://prod-edxapp.edx-cdn.org/assets/courseware/v1/6913dd84795c217cc1c8c05358d8e782/asset-v1:SDGAcademyX+NR001+2T2019+type@asset+block/Women_and_artisanal_mining_-_gender_roles_and_the_road_ahead.pdf

Image source:

Laura Lartigue, Technical Writing Specialist for USAID/Guinea, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Guinea_Siguiri_miner_woman.jpg