At least four million out of the 15 million artisanal small-scale gold miners in the world are women and children.
This data from the planetGOLD programme shows that the representation of women in small-scale mining (SSM) remains in the minority. In Asia, the International Labour Organization reported that the percentage of female miners is less than 10% of the entire population of small-scale miners. Commonly, women perform support roles for other mine workers such as sorting rocks, recording of gold production, and arrangement of transport services, and logistics.
In the Philippines, the world’s 27th largest gold producer with 80% of annual production coming from the artisanal small-scale gold mining (ASGM) sector, opportunities for women working in mines are diverse. They can support their families and pay for their children’s education. But they also face considerable challenges. Women often don't have access to their own tools and receive no support for child care, which can prevent them from working. Women are subject to gender discrimination when they are prevented from doing certain mining jobs that are seen as exclusive to men.
In more extreme situations, some women are even banned from entering mining sites when menstruating due to a superstition that they could cause the disappearance of gold in the area. Others are not allowed to work on mine sites because of a perception that they could be prostitutes.
SSM in the Philippines is considered an informal economy due to laws that are not responsive to the realities of the situation. Additionally, small-scale miners are not protected by labor welfare laws. These drawbacks affect male miners but have an even greater impact on women who can be more dependent on informal mining activities such as compressor mining, kulipaw and artisanal family mining. Women have fewer opportunities to be recognized as “miners” compared to men not only because their communities do not recognize their work but also because of existing laws such as Republic Act 7076. Under the law, a person is only considered a miner if he or she is registered as a miner and is working within an operation that has met all permitting requirements.
While the Department of Environment and Natural Resources sets rules on how to further protect small-scale mining workers, it may not necessarily apply to women, who work without contracts.
Women are frequently excluded from management positions in the SSM community, including participation in decision-making opportunities where they could raise the challenges they face. In interviews and observations of female miners by planetGOLD Philippines, they expressed concerns about their vulnerability at mining sites due to a lack of infrastructure where they could work safely and avoid double standards about women that have been ingrained in the local culture.
Based on the 2021 planetGOLD Philippines Contextual Study conducted in Sagada, Mt, Province and Paracale, Camarines Norte, few women take part in mining associations and are not recognized as “miners.” Out of 926 members of SSM associations operating in the Minahang Bayan of the two pilot sites, only 55 are women.
Without access to formal organizations such as mining associations, women have limited access to social protection and government programming. Most women involved in ASGM have seasonal and part-time roles.
Both men and women are vulnerable to occupational health hazards in small-scale mining. However, women in ASGM are further marginalized as laborers in existing regulatory frameworks on occupational health and safety and labor standards due to the informality of their work.
The planetGOLD Philippines’ two project sites – Sagada, Mt Province and Paracale, Camarines Norte. Both areas have Minahang Bayan where women miners are performing different roles – from muckers (a person who collects waste ores from mine tunnels) to cooks.
How have gender issues in SSM evolved over the years and how did female miners adapt? Interviews with three female miners from planetGOLD Philippines’ partner communities provide a snapshot of their challenges and ambitions.
Juggling Hours and Unpaid Care Work
Mining is my only source of income because it is the only work I know how to do. We spend more than eight hours working on the mining site. Sometimes we exceed 12 hours, or worse, 24 hours during a busy operation.
We do not have much time and energy left when we come home. I wanted to be a hands-on mother to my children. I wanted to discipline them well and look after them. But juggling my working hours in the mining site and my time at home is always a challenge. It’s a difficult choice to prioritize my work as a miner over my family. But what can I do? I must provide for them, especially my children, so that they can have a good future. I want my children to go to school and get a degree. I don’t want them to work in the mines like me. I am not demeaning the kind of work that we have, but it is hard and risky. The mine is not the most ideal place to work.
I always dream for my children to finish their studies. That’s the only way to get out of poverty.
Of Waste Ores and Borrowed Tools
I am working in Minahang Bayan as a mucker and processing plant worker. As a mucker, I collect waste ores from the tunnels. These ores will be processed so we can get paid. We need tools such as headlamps, sacks, sledgehammers, boots, and gloves. Without gloves, we often get bruises on our hands. But these tools are not ours. We do not have our own proper equipment to use at work. Women muckers are at the mercy of tunnel workers every time we borrow tools. In fact, we even have to borrow sacks [which we use to store and carry waste ores] from them every time our supply runs out. Once we have spare money, we repay them.
But our work does not stop at mucking. We are also involved in mineral processing – indirectly. We do support roles like cooking for tunnel and processing plant workers. We clean up after them once they are done in the processing area.
After the mining duties, I am a mother and a provider at home. But not all women miners are as lucky as I am. Those who have young children are not allowed to work if they do not have another adult at home to take care of their children. The mining operation is strict about this, especially for women miners in night shifts. Young children are prohibited in the area.
Our work in Minahang Bayan brings food to our family’s table. It pays our electricity bill and sends my children to school.
We hope we can earn more. If we can access government assistance to provide tools, our situation on the mining site will greatly improve.
Stigma and Safe-space
In the past, women who work at or even those who just enter the Minahang Bayan area were branded negatively. Some people believe that women working at mining sites is equivalent to prostitution. We have a colloquial term for women working at mines: “kulipaw.”
Kulipaw is cultural practice in Paracale’s SSM communities in which a person, who is not part of a mining group, actively solicits ore from mining communities. But it is also used negatively as a term for women who resort to giving [sexual] pleasure in exchange for ore or gold. We have heard stories about women making easy money or gold by engaging in prostitution. It's unfortunate that decent and hard-working female miners now suffer from this stigma.
This kind of branding of female miners evolved from true stories. It is hard to break the stigma because prostitution – not just in mining sector – still exists. But I am hoping that women miners like us will have more of a safe-space to work in mining sites. We commonly perform the support roles like cooking and cleaning – day and night. And during the night shift, where do we sleep in between work? Where do we rest? The common area is the same space tunnel workers use.
More spaces exclusive for women would create a safer area more conducive for female miners to work.
A Vision for Gender Inclusive SSM
The planetGOLD Philippines underscores the importance of normalizing gender in different aspects of SSM – may it be in policy formulation, mining site infrastructure, access to finance, gold trading, and other areas.
Women can be effective in promoting better mining practices. Research shows that women tend to hold more pro-environment beliefs, which are largely attributed to their family-oriented nature. Men miners also recognize women’s soft skills in organizational, financial management, and interpersonal relations. If mining associations were more gender-inclusive and if more women were given adequate technical assistance, they could be instrumental in advocating for socially responsible mining practices
Through a series of capacity-building activities for women, planetGOLD aims to create more opportunities for women in livelihood, leadership, advocacy, and government planning. The planetGOLD project is currently conducting a series of gender workshops with government and small-scale miners which aim to raise awareness on gender issues and promote the empowerment of women in small-scale mining.
Putting women at the core of SSM could be a transformational change for the sector, although it may require a decade of work. But one small step in the right direction is always a welcome change that can bring the biggest difference for female miners.
These first-hand accounts are based on interviews done by planetGOLD Philippines with female miners in Sagada, Mountain Province and Paracale, Camarines Norte. The interviews were conducted in local languages and translated for this report.