“Women need to forge ahead and take risks; brave the inequalities until it becomes the norm. And prove to themselves and everyone else that they deserve to be here.”
Gold mining, particularly at small and medium scale, provides critical livelihood opportunities for thousands of Guyanese, though with these opportunities come significant risks and challenges. The experiences of women in this sector are vastly different from those of men — who make up most of the participants in the sector. Women have however persevered within and continue to contribute greatly to the sector.
Understanding the gender-based differences, in both the functioning and impact of the sector, is important if the particular needs and aspirations of all Guyanese who choose this line of work are to be met. This is an important aspect of the GEF-supported planetGOLD Guyana project.
So, to better understand the difference in participation and contribution of men and women, we executed a gender and social analysis of Guyana’s ASGM value chain. In addition to guiding the effective implementation of the planetGOLD project, the analysis aimed to highlight the experiences of women within the mining value chain and provide important insights on how gender equality can be better met within the sector.
“It’s a Man’s World”
It is common to hear statements such as: “mining is a male-dominated sector;” or “mining is not really something for women because of their delicate nature;” or even “…the roles women play and the very nature of mining is disadvantageous for women, it’s extremely strenuous work.” These sentiments are echoed across the ASGM value chain and are similarly shared by men and women; from decision-makers, to those toiling daily in the pits.
Despite these odds, women have been in Guyana’s gold mining workforce since at least the 1970s. Many joined the sector either pioneering themselves through opportunities to work as byaires (cooks) on a mining operation or because of familial ties — uncles, fathers, brothers, spouses or others — in the sector. Some women now even function as decision makers in the sector, including as dredge owners and managers of support businesses. The Guyana Women Miners Organization (GWMO), formed in 2010, focuses on improving the conditions of women in sector and looks to expand the opportunities for women in the sector. The GWMO had an estimated membership of 470 women at end of 2019 — the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission estimated that approximately 15,000 persons were employed in the sector in 2019.
We found that, despite many prohibitors, including the usually misguided negative stereotype that all women working in the ‘backdam’ are sex workers, women are actively engaged across all areas of the gold mining value chain. In some cases, women fulfill more than one role at a time, and many have worked to elevate their position in the value chain, moving from employee to employer.
“It was really hard; still is. You know how many people tell me I can’t do this?”
Doing It All with Grit and Versatility
Linette has worked in the mining industry for over 20 years. It is the only work life she has ever known. “It was really hard; still is. You know how many people told me I can’t do this? Some of my own family didn’t talk to me for years, because they thought I was out here 'picking fare' (Guyanese slang for sex work).” Being able to provide for her children, and ensuring they were properly educated were the main motivating factors for her. This meant sending them away to live with family back on the coast so that they could attend better schools, as the options closer to her were limited.
Linette has already overcome many barriers in her years in the industry but is still hindered by persistent challenges such as those experienced finding honest workers for her dredges. “Is not easy for women out here. I had to shut down my dredge many times. Every day something goes wrong and I have to spend money to fix it. Or they steal so much I would get very little left and I have expenses,” she said.
Land ownership is another issue that affects Linette. She says that she has tried for a long time to mine closer to where she lives but all mining concessions in that area are owned by one person. She is unable to acquire a lease from the landlord concessionaire so her operations are located farther away. She posited that this is so because she is a woman, as other “guys come here all the time and get leases. Most of the operations you are hearing around here are people leasing from him,” she said.
Linette’s experiences are unfortunately too common for women in mining in Guyana. Women interviewed reported that they are easy targets as some believe they are not capable of managing a mining operation or think they do not belong in the sector in the first place. Many women miners believe — based on their experiences — that many, including concessionaires, prefer to get into business in the sector with men rather than women miners, as women are seen as a high risk.
The Invisible Roles Women Play
Natalie is a Registered Nurse and initially only “helped out” part-time in their gold shop, primarily taking care of the administrative duties of managing the business she and her husband owned. However, when her husband became ill from mercury poisoning a few years ago, she resigned to manage the business full-time, while continuing to be his primary care-giver. “It was bad, we thought he would die,” she said when recalling those times. Though she successfully maintains the business operating viably in a highly competitive environment, the fact that she is a woman continues to be a main characteristic by which she is judged and sometimes discriminated against.
“Most miners who come in here prefer to deal with him when they come to sell their gold,” she matter-of-factly said indicating her husband. “Some give me a hard time saying that women don't know what they are doing. But there is nothing in this place that he can do that I can’t,” she continued. To be successful she says she asserts her presence and position, and does not take no for an answer. “Women need to forge ahead and take risks; brave the inequalities until it becomes the norm. And prove to themselves and everyone else that they deserve to be here.”
In communities near mining sites, women are taking up their tools and doing pork-knocking (using hand-held detectors and battels to scavenge abandoned sites) as a means to sustain their families and supplement other income generating activities, such as subsistence farming. This practice is particularly prevalent with women who are sole bread winners, or in situations where the male bread winner is away for extended periods of time.
In an indigenous community in Region 1 that is surrounded by mining sites, a group of 19- to 55-year-old women escaping the afternoon sun’s heat under trees shared with us the impacts of their husbands or partners being away, working in backdams. They related that they sometimes don’t see their significant others for weeks, sometimes months at a time. They shared their experience pork-knocking saying, “It is a tough job, but we have to do it sometimes.” Their primary role is taking care of their families, which is a challenge when there is no money coming from their partners for long periods of time. It is also common for them to do subsistence farming but this is seasonal and does not provide adequate income.
Therefore, to fill the gaps, they frequently mine gold at ‘worked out’ sites as a means of meeting the needs of their family. This practice is illegal and dangerous, although it is a common practice of women within the various mining districts.
It is clear that women miners continue to face tremendous challenges, still they are determined to defy the odds and find ways to succeed in this male dominant arena. Recognizing the different needs and roles of women in the gold mining sector, the planetGOLD Guyana project considers it critical to mainstream gender in every aspect of its work. The intention is to ensure that men and women have equal access to all opportunities available under the project. These opportunities include access to funds through a financing mechanism that will assist with the purchase of gold processing equipment, training in the use of new technologies, and the opportunity for women miners to share their experiences with the world. We are hopeful that these will all lead to greater gender equality within the ASGM sector.
*Some names were changed to protect the identity of the interviewees