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Out of sight – girls in mining

A new ILO study shows that not only are children still being forced to work in mines, but many of them are girls. It is child labour in its worst form: young girls risk permanent injury from carrying heavy loads of rock and contamination from nerve-damaging mercury. Without a chance to go to school, they are locked into a life of poverty. ILO Online reports.

Article | 13 September 2007

GENEVA (ILO Online) – The story of a girl named Hadiza is not atypical, but the outcome is better than others. At the age of seven, she and her parents arrived in Komabangou, Niger, and together with her older brothers and sisters, she was put to work wet and dry panning for gold and removing rubble and ore from the pits.

The young girl remembers resisting the work.

“A girl is not made to work in gold mining”, she says in a story related in one of the studies for a new ILO report (Note 1) on girls in mining entitled Girls in mining: Research finding from Ghana, Niger, Peru and the United Republic of Tanzania. “At the time when I was still working I managed twice to escape and hide in the family of one of my friends but each time I was brought back to my family.”

Even so, not all girls and boys in small-scale mining activities worldwide are as lucky as Hadiza, according the report. After going to see a nurse who then told her father that the girl would suffocate from asthma and die if she continued to work, he understood the risks and decided to forbid all his children to work in gold mining. Meanwhile, in 2006, the authorities outlawed the use of girls under the age of 15 years in gold extraction and processing.

“Today, besides some domestic work, I have nothing else to do”, she says. “My little brother and myself have been enrolled in school.”

Hadiza’s story highlights a hidden problem – the use of young girls in small-scale mines – that has drawn the attention of the ILO and was presented publicly for the first time at the Conference on Communities and Artisanal & Small-scale Mining (CASM) being held in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, from September 7-12, 2007. CASM is chaired by the United Kingdom government’s Department for International Development and is housed at the World Bank in Washington D.C.

The report not only sheds light on the issue but shows how cooperation between the ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) and local authorities has begun to tackle the issue of girls in small-scale mines, and do something about it.

The new ILO study covered research carried out in Ghana, Niger, Peru and the United Republic of Tanzania in 2006. Researchers found young girls – sometimes as young as 10 – exposed in small-scale mines to many dangers – from flying rock, suffocating dust, accidents involving heavy tools too large for them to handle and exposure to constant vibrations and noise to toxic chemicals such mercury.

The report says girls are also being used for such mining-related tasks as transporting and hauling food, supplies, water and rocks and assisting their mothers in the preparation of food and drink. In order to reach customers on site in the mines, they must traverse dangerous terrain that may be subject to cave-ins, mercury contamination, or sharp rock shards.

In Peru, girls are commonly employed in bars and restaurants serving the mining community. Some girls were found working as many as 12 hours a day and from the ages of 10 to 12. In some cases, bar work can lead to sex work or sexual abuse by the customers and the employers, the report says.

The ILO research shows that girls in the mining environment are vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse. Commercial sexual exploitation of girls and women is evident across all countries studied. In the Mirerani mining zone of the United Republic of Tanzania, for example, 85 out of the 130 girls interviewed said they had ended up in commercial sex work of some sort related to the nearby mining activity.

Poor understanding of the issue

The new ILO study challenges the general assumptions about gender roles in small-scale mining communities. It demonstrates that girls often perform tasks that are just as hazardous as those faced by boys, working even longer hours, with a greater workload and have a lesser chance of schooling, withdrawal or rehabilitation.

According to the study, girls aged 12 to17 in some small-scale mines in the United Republic of Tanzania are working between 42 and 70 hours per week in gemstone trading. Boys also work in this activity but tend to be older (upwards of 15 years) and work fewer hours (between 28 and 52 hours).

Even when child labour projects are designed, girls are often overlooked.

“Poor understanding of the issue translates into poor intervention”, explains Susan Gunn, child labour expert for IPEC who commissioned the report. “Policies and action programmes that address small-scale mining issues ignore the fact that there are children working there exposed to the same or even greater risks than the adults… and that many of them are girls. Consequently, girls miss out on the benefits and social support that the programmes provide.”

What’s more, women and girls in small-scale mining uphold a double presence in and around the mineshaft as they are obliged to work in order to supplement unsteady family income and locked into household chores when returning from the mines.

“Naturally girls and boys inherit the gender roles of adult women and men”, says Susan Maybud, gender specialist working for the ILO Gender Bureau. “From a young age, girls are suffering from the double burden of an increasingly hazardous and arduous workload and the domestic responsibilities at home. The hazards and risks of the work of women and girls must be granted the same recognition as those of men and boys.”

Despite the widespread prevalence of such cases, the ILO report also notes that there is light at the end of the tunnel. The study says the elimination of child labour from small-scale mining is possible through enlightened policies and their enforcement on the ground, changes in technology, assistance to adult miners to improve their income through better prices for their products, improvements in basic services, and awareness-raising for parents and mine-owners about the dangers to children.

In one example, a modern processing plant was established in Santa Filomena, Peru that completely eliminated child labour (Note 2). From 2000 to 2004, IPEC supported three prevention initiatives in mining communities in Peru, as well as a combined effort with miners’ associations to generate policy changes at the national level.

The sites of Komabangou and Mbanga in Niger are also examples of the positive progress that can be made against child labour in mining. In 2006, the authorities made it illegal for girls under the age of 15 years to work in gold extraction and processing.

Thanks to close cooperation between IPEC and the authorities, education alternatives have been provided and parents and employers have been sensitized to the dangers of employing children. The approach is working, as not a single girl under the age of 15 among a population of 50,000 in each town appeared to be working in mining activities, the report says.

“These projects have demonstrated that it is possible to tackle child labour in mining successfully”, Gunn says. “Widespread sensitization of the dangers of child labour, collaboration between the State and civil society to enforce child labour laws, measures to improve the conditions of labour in the mining industry, the provision of free and quality education and the close monitoring of children at risk, are all necessary.”

Note 1Girls in mining: Research finding from Ghana, Niger, Peru and the United Republic of Tanzania, Bureau for Gender Equality, International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, International Labour Organization, Geneva, 2007.

Note 2 – See ILO Online (4 May 2006): "Child labour in Latin America: The accident that changed Braulio’s life" at: