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A New Attempt To Crack Open Africa's Mining Industry To Women

Around Africa's Great Lakes region, the precious metals industry is not getting the most out of its mines. One way to improve the industry would be to include more women in the work force -- but resistance runs deep.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Mining in Kailo (Julien Harneis)

KAMPALA -  Women are still a rare sight in the lucrative mining industry in Africa's Great Lakes region, as local traditions, religion and even the law block their entry. Zambia however has become the great exception that helps better understand how things might change.

"Often marginalized, women occupy a second-class position in the mining sector, where men represent 95 percent of the workforce," says Zacharie Nzeyimana, a researcher for the Great Lakes Initiative on AIDS (GLIA), speaking during a legal workshop at the recently held International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (CIRGL). 

Officials are aiming to revise national mining legislation so mining sites can make the most out of the local population -- from women in particular. A regional study, made public in February, reported that mining sites were not maximizing the resources that come from minerals or precious stones ; issues around the labor force were seen as partly to blame.

Women are often the most exploited. In Tanzania, for example, women who work in the mining sector live in destitute conditions and are subjected to long working hours and harassment. Shamsa Diwana, general secretary for the Tanzania Women Miners Association (TAWOMA), says that in 2010, the Tanzanian parliament approved a law that allows women to fully participate in mining work, which they were previously unable to do.

Still, it has been difficult to put the law into practice because many are still unaware that this measure even exists. Others simply want to keep women out. "Men are convinced that a female presence in the mines could hinder performance -- for example, when a woman is on her period," Diwana said.

According to Zacharie Nzeyimana, this superstition is also found in the coltan mines of Uganda, where only five percent of the 180,000 employees are women. Women are limited to chores such as cleaning, washing precious stones, cooking, secretarial work and other non-technical and non-lucrative activities.

A Zambian exception

However, women themselves have a role to play in bringing about change. "You must prove that you're capable of doing what is demanded," declares Pauline Sialumba Mundia, a representative of the women's association Zambia Small Scala Mining Association.

With a proud smile, she points to the top qualifications of women workers in the mines around the Zambian city of Lumwana. They are so well integrated in the mining sector that they have even become owners of mining companies, with total annual revenues near $35 million. Ownership allows them to easily negotiate with the government, expanding on the success that began after craft-mine exploitation was legalised for women.

According to Mundia, the nearby Luapula mines, which are mostly smaller operations, have a female majority in a workforce of 5,000. These women have gone on to use the resources to establish modern hospitals and schools in the surrounding areas.

Still, the custom of having to ask their husbands' permission to go to work is slowing the expansion of women in the industry. In Zambia, men still often refuse to let their wives work.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Julien Harneis

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