Artisanal and small-scale gold mining often uses rudimentary technology, requires physically demanding dangerous labour and is routinely undertaken by marginalized communities in an informal setting. In Burkina Faso, approximately 20-30% of those working on mine sites are women, where they carry out various tasks such as crushing ore, collecting water, concentrating ore using sluices, in addition to being solely responsible for the household chores.
However, women miners generally do not have equal ownership or rights over resources, are not involved in decision making or consulted about mining plans including finding new sites or returning to old ones. They are not considered in terms of primary payments as the expectation is that they will make do with simple low paying labour like crushing rocks or with whatever they can extract from discarded materials like low grade rocks or tailings.
Artisanal mining sites in Burkina Faso use crude ore processing and gold extraction methods which lead to reduced gold recoveries and lower incomes than might otherwise be obtained. Primary ore is first crushed either manually or mechanically. Manual ore crushing is mainly carried out by women where long-term exposure to harmful silica dust can cause respiratory illnesses such as silicosis, chronic bronchitis or tuberculosis. Crushed ore is finely grinned, and women who are considered skilled at meticulous tasks, concentrate the gold using traditional sluice washing. Gold is extracted from the primary gold concentrate or sluice wash residue, using mercury amalgamation despite Burkina Faso law prohibiting the use of mercury in the ASGM sector.
Exposure to elemental mercury can lead to acute and chronic mercury intoxication and the toxic heavy metal persists in the environment where it can accumulate in fish and mammals. Mercury is detrimental to the developing fetus; high exposure can lead to serious birth defects and intellectual disability; low exposure can cause for example the long-term developmental problems. Since mercury can accumulate in the body, women exposed to mercury even before the beginning of a pregnancy can experience detrimental effects. Therefore, women of childbearing age and pregnant women should not take part in gold extraction processes using mercury, especially vaporization.
The Global Environment Facility (GEF) funded planetGOLD Burkina Faso project, designed and supervised by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, executed by the Artisanal Gold Council, is working towards eliminating mercury use in the artisanal gold mining sector by improving access to mercury free technologies. The initial project goal is to identify a suitable mine site to pilot the installation of a mercury free high recovery processing system, which will eliminate the use of mercury in gold extraction and increase gold recovery rates. In addition, the project aims to empower women in accordance with the GEF policy on gender equality by mainstreaming gender in all project activities. This includes gender-responsive planning of all project activities, acknowledging the specific needs of women and men miners to ensure that they are provided equal opportunities to participate and benefit from any project activities.
Women fear that the proposed processing system will eliminate their income opportunities
During visits to Gnikpiere, Tonka-La, Djarkdougou and Fandjora artisanal mine sites in July 2020, the planetGOLD Burkina Faso team observed the presence of gender biased inequalities. Typically, women miners are mainly engaged in traditional sluice washing for which they are not paid in cash. Instead women are compensated with the leftover sluice washing which they sell or re-process to extract the remaining gold using mercury amalgamation. While men at all sites welcomed the installation of the proposed mercury-free treatment unit, the women miners were worried that the unit will perform all operations of ore processing, eliminating the need for their labour. The head of the Tonka-La mining site, Salam Ouarma, an artisanal miner with twenty years of experience, promised to give up mercury and contribute to the fight for mercury elimination, if his site was chosen to pilot the installation of the processing unit.
The women miners fear that the unemployment and lack of access to tailings that contain gold will obliterate their only source of income. Maria Dao, a woman miner at the Tonka-La mine, sighed: "We help men with washing the mineral powder. In exchange for our labour, we always benefit from the tailings which we reprocess to extract gold. This is our sole source of income, therefore we hope that after installing the mercury free processing unit, the project will help us survive.”
Interestingly, some men miners were also concerned about how women will be impacted by the installation of the proposed gold processing unit. Moussa Kindo questioned: “What will be the future of women who derive their income from the gold extracted from leftover tailings in exchange for their labour for ore processing?” The income generated by secondary processing of tailings is crucial for many women, a condition exacerbated by the fact that some men take no responsibility in providing for their families despite their higher income.
During the last site visit to Fandjora, the only site with a women’s mining association, Asseta Sana, the head of the association, was able to bring women miners together for a meeting. During the meeting, Ms. Sana highlighted the urgent need to improve access to resources for women miners. She also mentioned the pressing need to improve infrastructure to ease household chores which are considered women’s responsibility. She described how they were lucky to have a water well installed for the site as a solution for drudgery of acquiring water. "We are lucky because we have access to this water borehole. Otherwise the only source of drinking water is the river in the village next door,” she said.
Project's initiatives to ensure gender equality throughout planning and implementation
Women empowerment is a key aspect of the planetGOLD Burkina Faso project in accordance with the GEF gender policy. The project will carry out a gender-sensitive local stakeholder mapping to understand the different roles and activities of local miners. It will uncover gender differences and gaps in the types of roles that women perform at mine sites and how they are remunerated. Based on this analysis the project will determine gender differentiated impacts of the installation of the mercury free gold processing system and identify opportunities to address any adverse gender impacts. Improved processing can provide many new and diverse jobs for women. For example, the formality emplaced through the project requires many clerical roles such as accounting, and women could, rather than extracting paltry amounts of gold from tailings, work in more highly paid and safer roles involved in the processing plant operations.
The planetGOLD Burkina Faso project, in line with the GEF gender policy “Guidance to advance gender equality in GEF projects and programs” and UNIDO's “Policy on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women”, has already taken measures to mainstream gender by including women miners in the negotiations proceeding processing plant installation. The inputs from individual women miners and women’s mining associations is essential for the successful delivery of the project. In addition, the project will ensure women miners’ participation in training programs, workshops, seminars etc. to facilitate a gender responsive approach during project implementation.