Women small-scale miners in the town of Itogon, Philippines, are facing various livelihood and economic challenges as a result of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) that has been imposed due to COVID-19. Interviews with a few women miners showed that pre-COVID-19 gender inequalities are now exacerbated. Their concerns highlighted how, for women, ECQ transportation restrictions and the fear of the virus have resulted in slow gold production, limited livelihood options, difficulty in accessing support services, and an increased burden of unpaid work. According to the Community-Based Monitoring System Census 2015-2016, the number of women working in artisanal gold mining in Barangay Loacan, Itogon is estimated to be 235 out of 1,368, or 17% of the total workforce .
Though small-scale mining is considered a male-dominated industry, many women also participate in this sector by taking informal, part-time, seasonal, and low-paying roles. Such is the case in Itogon, where women are in charge of tasks related to ore processing, including bagging of the ore from the portal or opening of the tunnel . However, with the threat of COVID-19, the local government followed the national directive to implement ECQ starting on 15 March 2020. At the time this article was prepared, it has almost been two months since public transportation was suspended, affecting the whole artisanal small-scale gold mining (ASGM) community in Itogon, including women working on mineral processing.
ECQ causes slow gold production and lower-income
Jane, a 39-year-old ball-mill operator, says gold production has gone down after running out of sacks used to store and carry ores. “Before the ECQ, 50 pieces of sacks cost Php 230 (USD 4.6), but now, it is around Php 350 (USD 7) or more. Since some men are still risking to work in nearby mines, women strategize by recycling used sacks and collecting rice sacks,” she says. Buying more expensive sacks just to be able to continue with the operation means less profit for the miners.
Meriam, a 42-year-old wife of a miner who also used to work in mineral processing, says “My husband’s low gold production is causing hardships for us. He only works half-day due to low mining supply, and it is affecting our family’s income”. She would now stretch what little money her husband could provide to pay their bills, buy food for a family of five, as well as for her prenatal checkups.
Women in the midst of COVID-19 end up having limited livelihood options
Most women in Itogon do not have another source of income aside from mineral processing. Since ECQ allows activities related to food, water, and other essential sectors, and while some women own sari-sari stores (neighborhood sundry stores, usually an extension of a house), they have difficulty maintaining this type of business. Regine, a 51-year-old leader of a women’s association, says “I cannot go out and buy goods because of lack of transportation means. It is also impractical to rent a vehicle just to buy goods for my store.”
Although farming is an alternative livelihood option, costs associated with transporting and selling produce makes it difficult for them to earn a profit. Jane’s relatives who made a living from flower farming, for example, had left the flowers to wither since they would incur a loss if they transported the flowers to cities without confirmed customers. Jane tries to cope by selling chili pepper in the neighborhood, but she is worried that planting alone is not sustainable due to fertilizer demands and bad weather.
Estrellita, a 56-year-old who leads the Committee on Women of Barangay (Village) Loacan, in Itogon, says that some of the women from their committee attempted but failed to find jobs in Baguio City. “Except for the few essential stores, almost all establishments are closed in Baguio City, so there are no new job openings. In addition, it is difficult to commute to work due to lack of transportation options,” she says.
Informal work arrangements mean no financial security and limited support services
For many women in the field, the need for income is immediate and urgent. Since most of the women in small-scale mining communities have no formal work arrangements, they have limited access to social security and health insurance that can support them during this pandemic.
May 2020, the country’s Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) said that 13.5 million low-income families (or 75% of the 18 million households targeted to receive the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) subsidy) have been served . SAP is a cash emergency subsidy program for qualified families who experience economic disruptions. Three out of the four women we interviewed had qualified and received Php 5,500 (USD 110) in SAP subsidy three weeks after filling out the forms provided by the DSWD. In addition, they also received relief goods containing 3 kilos of rice, 6 canned goods, sugar, and coffee from their Local Government Units (LGUs) three times prior to the provision of SAP subsidy. But these never really lasted long, especially for bigger families. While waiting, some women borrow money from their neighbors and their wealthier relatives for food. Jane, for example, had to buy food on credit at the sari sari store.
Other than the experienced financial threat, women miners are also disadvantaged due to limited access to health services, especially reproductive health services that can be life-threatening. Meriam, who is now seven months pregnant, had to go to Trinidad, a town 14 km away from where her doctor resides. “We had an emergency after my stomach tightened,” she said, “It was difficult at that time because we had no vehicle. We ended up renting a vehicle to be able to go to Trinidad and had to pay Php 1,000 (USD 20) for the half-day rental”.
Multiple burdens lodged on women while unpaid care work increases
Women, especially mothers, are the primary caregivers at home. Based on past focus group discussions conducted by the Artisanal Gold Council (AGC) team, at times, men would only render half-day work. But women still perform the same set of responsibilities at home . With the ECQ in place, women spend long hours at home and have more people to care for. This also prevents them from seeking new jobs and is adding up to their unpaid hours. Schools and daycare centers are closed, therefore parents have to educate and take care of their children. “Though my husband helps me with the laundry, I still feel that I have so much more housework to do now,” Jane shared.
“My eldest son helps me with the laundry. My husband would also help sometimes, but my household chores have increased now. The house is always messy with kids around and it’s hard to feed them all day long,” Meriam added.
According to Estrellita, those who volunteered to identify beneficiaries for the DSWD SAP, are mostly women. Volunteers would walk from house to house to interview and provide relief for the beneficiaries. They do not get paid for this work, but their families would be qualified to receive the SAP subsidy.
More than the physical burden, Regine expressed her worries about what her future would look like after the pandemic, stating “I fear that once ECQ is lifted, someone would contract COVID-19 from the city and bring it to our community. If that happens, all work would become much harder for us.” Meriam also shared her concern on possible emergencies, “If ECQ gets extended, emergencies would be hard to deal with. Not everyone can afford to rent a car.”
It is startling to comprehend the physical and mental toll this pandemic is taking on Jane, Meriam, Regine, Estrellita, and the other women in the mining community. However, with the issues that these women have raised, this emergency can be turned into an opportunity to identify and implement solutions to promote gender equality in the home and in the small-scale mining sector.
- Ensure access to reproductive health services, treatment of chronic diseases and emergency response. LGUs should prioritize maternal health care, especially for sensitive pregnancies. LGUs should ensure availability of transportation for women, elderly, and others who need to go to hospitals and clinics for treatment, such as dialysis, chemotherapy, and emergency treatments .
- Provide alternative sources of income. LGUs can include fresh produce in the relief goods bought from local farmers. LGUs can also hire women in their local COVID-19 management activities. For example, some municipalities have employed women in the community for the production of face masks and PPEs .
- Provide compensation for SAP volunteers. In addition to their inclusion to the SAP list, volunteers should also be provided reasonable benefits or a nominal fee for their time and the risk involved in the performance of this task.
- Provide relief assistance that are responsive to the needs of women. Include diapers, alcohol, and cotton buds for women with infants. LGUs should also distribute nutrient-rich food for breastfeeding mothers and other baby essentials.
- Increase gender awareness: An increased awareness about gender inequities and women’s rights in mining communities could help to sensitize men about unequal work burdens and seek their support; women’s organizations can support women to share their concerns and also provide support in cases of domestic violence.
The ECQ measure will likely be lowered to General Community Quarantine (GCQ) on May 15 in Itogon. This means fewer movement restrictions and might make the lives of women miners easier in some respects. However, economic impacts, reduced incomes, and the fear of contracting the virus will continue to have a high toll on the physical and mental health of women.
The Global Environment Facility-funded planetGOLD project, executed by the AGC, in the Philippines, aims at reducing gender inequities in the sector and improving women’s access to better opportunities. These changes in the sector are intended to reduce the vulnerability of women miners and make them also more resilient to future crises.
This article was originally published on May 14 on the Artisanal Gold Council website
planetGOLD Philippines (2019). Site Assessment Analytical Report: LIPMA Minahang Bayan, Annex B. Gender Report p. 49.
planetGOLD Philippines (2019). Site Assessment Analytical Report: LIPMA Minahang Bayan, p. 19.
DSWD: SAP distribution already 75-percent complete, The Manila Bulletin (2020 May 7). Retrieved from https://news.mb.com.ph/2020/05/07/dswd-sap-distribution-already-75-percent-complete/
Castillo, M. (2020). Gendered Approach to Local COVID Management of the Philippines. UP NCPAG CLRG p.4. Retrieved from http://localgov.up.edu.ph/uploads/1/4/0/0/14001967/gendered_approach_to_local_covid_management_in_the_philippines_mcc_final.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2GXYKs77j4-a7Xlk1Prxs1BXKn2Xa2BWU3T8LR23XKGTwb5RDEtLzSAok