busia women miners

African Women in ASGM

Building Back Better, Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic


  • Nellie Mutemeri
    School of Mining Engineering, University of Witwatersrand & Mining Practice Director, Mutemeri Consulting
  • Patience Singo
    Mining and Environment Associate, Mutemeri Consulting
  • Itai Mutemeri
    Head of Climate Change Practice, Mutemeri Consulting

As experts in the field, one thing we have noticed, and promoted, over the years is an increased focus on women in artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). It is estimated that more than 9 million people work in ASM in Africa and women comprise up to 50% of that workforce. As we transition out of the pandemic, gender imbalances in the sector are now more evident than ever. Longstanding problems in ASM still exist in their former state or have been exacerbated.

As we stated at the beginning of the pandemic, the resilience of ASM communities would be greatly tested during this period. In a recent paper, Lyster and Singo note that women in ASM communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. These impacts include job losses, food and physical insecurity, and a decrease in their ability to attend to women’s health needs such as sanitary items and family planning medication.

Need for recognition of women mine workers

The increased attention on women is important, yet the lens is often too narrowly focused on women entrepreneurs. As practitioners, we need to update our approach to attend to the needs of ordinary women miners whose day-to-day contributions in the value chain are critical.

In most ASM interventions, there appears to be an over-focus on women entrepreneurs at the expense of women mine workers. There seems to be a lack of recognition that women active as workers in the sector have specific needs, particularly since they are most vulnerable to the negative impacts of ASM and provide an opportunity for impactful change at scale.
- N. Mutemeri, 2016. Women in ASM Capacity Building Workshop, March 6-8, 2017. Addis Ababa.

Women ASM Workers

Global and regional developments and their gender implications

As we think about building back better for women in ASGM, there are global developments whose impacts on the sector may be a challenge. These include the EU Conflict Minerals Regulation; if what we saw with the U.S. Dodd-Frank Act replicates, we may see a de facto embargo on some operations, leading to loss of livelihoods, increase in underground trade, and perpetuation of illicit and exploitative practices. The cost of compliance could mean that even more women will be excluded from market access because they cannot afford the due diligence required.

In Africa, we have the ongoing domestication of the Africa Mining Vision. Despite some of its gaps and a lack of explicit guidance for gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment, many are proceeding with its implementation. And now this programme, which promoted gender inclusiveness in its policy formulation processes, has to compete with the emergency response demands of COVID-19.

We also have the newly launched Africa Continental Free Trade Area. Its considerations for minerals trade are not yet clear. Even less has been thought about with regards to its gender implications.

What will all this mean for women in countries that have ratified the Minamata Convention? For those 32 African countries that have currently ratified the Minamata Convention, some even having gone further and developed a National Action Plan, will gender mainstreaming remain a priority topic as efforts to eliminate mercury pollution from ASGM occur simultaneously with pandemic responses?

To keep gender as a priority in policy and practise, we recommend that countries and agencies invest in improving gender capacity within key institutions. In our experience, this lever has positive implications beyond ASM.

zimbabwe women asm
photo by Patience Singo

Learning from past failures: No more “business as usual”

The challenges we have been trying to address through such interventions will continue for longer than is desired. We continue to live with bureaucratic inertia, where people fail to see clear incentives that may change long-held practices and policies. The lack of dedicated ASM policies and oversight bodies is at the core of fractured approaches and poorly managed initiatives. But we can use the present opportunities to incrementally improve the lives of women in ASM communities.

To ensure we build back better and integrate women in the future programming, it can not continue as “business as usual.“ Policy reviews and analysis should drive change from gender blind to gender aware, ensuring the needs of typical women miners are addressed. Formalization approaches should shift from a “one size fits all,” which tends to favour men, and should also be informed by the needs and challenges women face. In Africa for example, governments and all stakeholders should ensure gender mainstreaming and social inclusion in the domestication of the Africa Mining Vision as this is the main protocol driving mining policy change in Africa at a national level, and can lead to positive developmental outcomes for women.

Building post-pandemic recovery and resilience requires an empowered and technically skilled female workforce, with access to finance and tools for production.  With business embracing digital platforms (virtual markets, transactions, meetings etc.), it is paramount to ensure women are supported to fully engage in this technological transition. Such virtual marketing initiatives have had a great positive impact amongst gemstone women miners with access to markets and fair prices.

As always, the solutions in ASM are not easy. What is clear however, is that to build back better for women in ASM means not displacing them from the agenda because of a crisis. If anything, the crisis has further outlined the importance of placing women in this sector on equal footing.

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