Mariam Nakawa, photographed near her mine shaft at a gold mining site in central Uganda.

Golden girls: The hidden role of women in Africa's artisanal mines

Nakacho was one of just a handful of women at this artisanal mining site who had managed to break away from the roles generally ascribed to her gender to become a part-owner of a mine shaft.
October 17, 2017

On a muddy hillside in central Uganda, Mariam Nakacho stared intently into the bucket of murky water at her feet. Against its edge lay a sprinkling of fine yellow sediment that she knew from experience contained gold. What’s more, it was her gold. When we met her in March 2017, Nakacho was one of just a handful of women at this artisanal mining site who had managed to break away from the roles generally ascribed to her gender to become a part-owner of a mine shaft.

“Women here face a lot of challenges,” she explained, as a team of young men hauled up buckets of rocks and sand from the shaft behind her. “We are always scared, but we just have to deal with the situation. We stay because we need the money.”

On the valley floor below lay a sprawl of ramshackle iron sheet and tarpaulin structures housing the thousands of people who migrated to the area over the past few years in the hope of striking it big.

That hope ended for many artisanal miners across the country in August 2017, when the Government of Uganda ordered their eviction by the thousands, along with residents of mining settlements — further illustrating the complexity and challenges they face.

Making it in a male-dominated industry

The landscape surrounding Nakacho’s village was scarred and cratered by hundreds of muddy ponds, open-cast mines, and rusting machinery.

This is where Nakacho started out three years ago, spending long days under the searing sun submerged up to the waist in muddy water as she sifted through vast quantities of other people’s sand. What gold she found she handed over to her client, in return for a flat fee for every sack of ore that she processed.

The work was tough, and so were the living conditions. “There were no toilets, no healthcare, and no services. Sanitation was a big problem. And we were always scared of being raped or robbed,” said Nakacho, who is too afraid to climb the hill to her mine shaft alone after dark. “These things happened to some of my friends.”

Small-scale and artisanal mining is commonly perceived to be a male-dominated industry and there has been little research into the roles of women. In reality, women are a major presence at most mining sites. At this particular site, women participated in a range of activities. They dug for gold in open pit mines, operated ball-mills to crush rocks into powder, panned for gold dust in the ponds, and they owned shops, restaurants, and other businesses. The only place where women were not represented was inside the mine shafts themselves, a domain reserved by unwritten custom exclusively for men.

Accounting for women miners in policy decisions

Now, a study conducted under the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women program (GrOW), a partnership between the UK's Department for International Development, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and IDRC, is seeking to identify solutions to address the barriers that prevent women from fully participating in the economy. In the process, the study aims to find out more about women’s participation and experiences in artisanal and small-scale mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda.

The project’s goal, said IDRC Senior Program Specialist Martha Melesse, is to increase the visibility of women’s roles in the artisanal and small-scale mining sector and the barriers they face, so that mining reforms and regulations recognize their contribution and take appropriate measures to enhance their livelihoods.

“Millions of women work in artisanal and small-scale mining, and yet discussions about mining policies and practices rarely recognize the roles of women,” said Melesse. “The same holds true for deliberations about mining regulations and reforms. This risks exacerbating gender inequality. It can also undermine women’s livelihoods.”

The early findings of the research show that women are concentrated in the low-paid and low- value activities within the artisanal and small-scale mining sector, and they generally earn less than men, explained Melesse. Nevertheless, “women play vital roles in this sector and artisanal and small-scale mining provides an important alternative source of income for them and their families,” she adds.

Improving mining as an option for women

It is hoped that promoting gender equality in the sector will benefit not only women but will also have a positive impact on their families and on society at large. The results of this research may provide the information needed so that government laws and policies can be adapted to support the work of women like Nakacho, and to find ways to make it possible for her and others to live and work safely. In the context of the recent eviction that occurred in Uganda, the relevance of this research to local, national, and regional policy debate has only increased.

One of the project researchers, Professor Blair Rutherford of Carleton University’s Sociology and Anthropology department, said early findings have identified many barriers and forms of discrimination that hinder the progress of women at mining sites in Central and East Africa, but there are also opportunities for advancement.

“Those who find various forms of work are not only able to earn some income to meet some of their needs and those of their dependents, but a few also managed to accumulate savings,” he said. “We found that to be true in this gold-mining zone in Uganda, as well as in the other five mining zones of our research project.”

Rewards and sacrifices for a woman mine shaft owner

Nakacho’s story is a case in point. Before she came to the mine she was a fish trader, buying stock from fishing communities on the shores of the nearby lake and selling them for a small profit. However hard she worked, she never earned enough to significantly change the circumstances of her life.

At the mine she discovered that she was able to save money, even during her time working as a freelance panner for other clients. Eventually she managed to accumulate the 1.2 million Ugandan shillings (approximately CA $415) needed to buy a share in a mine shaft. In time, her diggers struck gold, and within three months she was able to buy a new house.

“When you have money you can have whatever you like,” said Nakacho. “You can live well. Now I have a furnished home and I can pay for my children’s school fees.” Yet there have also been sacrifices. Her children live away at boarding school and during holidays they stay with their father, Nakacho’s ex-husband. Working long days, often until midnight, it would be unsafe and impractical to have her children with her. She is able to visit them only occasionally.

Part of the problem is that as a woman with money she is seen as an easy target for thieves. If she leaves her mine shaft she fears her workers will steal from her, or the landowner on whose property she works will seize the mine.

She also had to put up with taunts and insults from some of the local miners, who accused her of being a witch and of bringing bad luck to the site. “They don’t believe we could have earned our money so they ask us where we stole it. They say a lot of bad things about us,” said Nakacho. “It makes me feel sad when I hear it, and makes me want to leave the mine”.

Like all the women we spoke to at the site, she hopes only to stay long enough to build up enough savings to start a business elsewhere. “If I were to advise other women coming to the mine, I would tell them to be very careful,” explained Nakacho. “But if they have wisdom and a little capital, they should come.”

Photo: IDRC / Tommy Trenchard