Q&A: Understanding women’s roles and barriers to participation in artisanal and small-scale mining

February 27, 2024
A group of women and men working at a mine site in Rwanda. Credit: Pact.
A group of women and men working at a mine site in Rwanda. Credit: Pact.

There are nearly 45 million people who depend on artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) to make a living worldwide. An often misunderstood sector, the World Bank’s Delve data platform has been working to reveal the true scope of ASM and its workforce. With the third State of the Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining Sector report, released earlier this month, the spotlight is focused on women in mining, their roles, challenges and barriers to full and equal participation in the sector.

James McQuilken, director of responsible mining at Pact, has been studying and championing women in mining throughout his career. McQuilken was coauthor and an editor of the recently released State of the ASM Sector report and co-authored one of the report’s case studies. In this Q&A, he shares what we know about women in ASM and how stakeholders can work together to improve the lives and work of women in the sector.

Q: The recent State of the ASM Sector report focuses on gender equality. Why is this topic important? 
A: Women play very important roles in ASM, from directly mining to various support roles at mine sites and along the entire value chain, making up approximately 30% or 13.4 million of the 44.67 million global ASM workforce. However, we lack more detailed and reliable data about their participation. Women’s work in ASM is not always recognized because it often happens out of sight, is not always considered to be direct mining activities, may be undertaken alongside other livelihood activities such as farming or household tasks, and is also a reflection of women’s wider marginalization and inequality in society. Simply put, women in ASM are not being counted. As a result, women’s experiences, needs and are also not being accounted for in legal and policy frameworks and development programming. 

Through the State of the ASM Sector report, we wanted to help identify the legal, social and practical barriers to women’s full and equal participation in ASM and highlight the good work that is being undertaken by many actors to promote women’s equality in ASM.

Women in ASM are not being counted. As a result, their experiences, needs and inequalities are also not being accounted for in legal and policy frameworks and development programming.

What types of roles do women play in the ASM sector? 
Women can be found at every step of the ASM value chain—directly mining, sorting, crushing, grinding, sieving, washing and panning. They also transport ores, provide catering and food sales, and deliver other related services at and around mine sites. There are numerous examples throughout the report. In Ghana, women rent sieves to male diamond miners in return for already washed ‘black sands’, which they then take home to sieve again and retrieve the smallest stones. In Rwanda, women miners haul bags of tin, coltan and tungsten ore up through deep underground tunnels to the surface. And in Myanmar, women process ore with mercury to retrieve gold. 

Are there jobs that are mostly for women or are a growing area for women? 
Typically, women are found in support roles rather than digging directly underground at the mine face or above ground in open pits, but this has as much to do with the greater physical demands of this role as it does with the fact that only a few miners at a time are needed for the digging phase of operations. I have personally witnessed women carrying 20 kg or heavier bags of sharp rocks on their backs up muddy slopes from mine pits to be sent for grinding to retrieve the fine gold particles, breaking rocks with hammers repeatedly in the hot sun so the rocks can fit in crushing machines and standing in ankle high water with shovels tending salt pans in blinding light. Their strength and resilience is clear. 

With the same opportunities as men, women can perform the exact same roles, should they choose to. This is because the main barriers that prevent women’s equal work in ASM relate to legal, socio-cultural and practical issues. We've seen through our work at Pact that once these opportunities are unlocked, such as through sensitization and training programs with ASM cooperatives and communities, women are allowed to work underground and digging should they wish, can access formal mining education, and quickly move into more senior roles such as supervising groups of miners to ensure safe and efficient production, bookkeeping, surveying and engineering, machine operation, gemstone sorters and other more skilled and better paid jobs. 

When the law allows for women to own a mining license and land and socio-cultural prejudices are overcome, women can also be mine owners and operators. However, this, sadly, remains rare. In many countries, women need a male relative to counter-sign or own a license and many communities have superstitions about women working in underground tunnels and at mine sites, fearing their presence is bad luck and will mean they will not find rich mineral veins. Today, 68 countries around the world still have a law—the ILO Underground Work (Women) Convention of 1935—that bans women from working underground, including in mining. Despite aiming to protect women from harsh and what was perceived as ‘immoral’ underground working conditions, the law marginalized them further into more insecure areas of work. While this law will soon be annulled by the ILO and member states, it demonstrates the long-standing barriers that remain in place for women to work in ASM and how legal frameworks influence cultural perceptions and practices, and vice versa.

Are there issues that are unique to women in mining? 
Women, like men, have specific challenges they face in ASM due to the work they typically undertake and their wider inequality and marginalization. The gendered division of labor, anatomical and biological differences, employment patterns, cultural beliefs, and societal roles, expectations and responsibilities contribute to gender-specific patterns of occupational health and safety hazards and risks and result in differentiated, and sometimes higher, risks of negative health and safety impacts in ASM. 

Women’s lower earnings in periphery roles with repetitive manual tasks such as rock breaking and ore grinding, and lack of access to capital means they face specific biomechanical impacts and cannot afford personal protective equipment. A lack of separate washing, toilet and changing facilities, childcare and personal equipment such as overalls and boots designed for non-male bodies can prevent women’s equal and full participation. Pregnant and breastfeeding women and their unborn babies are more exposed to chemical hazards such as mercury used in gold amalgamation and heavy metal poisoning from rock ore dust and other chemical hazards at mines and nearby communities. And women face greater risk and incidence of sexual and gender-based violence and harassment working in ASM—underground, at night, walking to and from the mine and even from private and state security services—actively discouraging and preventing them from working in ASM.

With so many challenges, why do women get involved in ASM? Are there benefits to their involvement? 
The mining sector as a whole offers an incredibly diverse and rewarding career path – with more ‘traditional’ engineering, mineral processing, geology and geotechnical professions as well more modern skills being needed. The sector increasingly has a wide range of sustainability and social science roles in community engagement, ESG, and responsible mining. With technological innovation, there is a large push for more automated vehicles piloted remotely above ground, reducing the dangers and tough conditions of working underground. This reduces the barriers and opens opportunities for more women to work in mining. 

When it comes to ASM, in most of the 80 or so less economically developed countries where it occurs, ASM is primarily a rural livelihood that provides a lifeline to millions of people. Women get involved to make a living, feed their families, send their children to school or earn extra income on top of other work. Women are also increasingly becoming involved in ASM as the barriers to their participation are reduced, such as acceptance of women being able to work in ASM and their increased access to education and training to take on skilled roles within the sector.

There are many benefits to women’s involvement in both mining and ASM – diversity of skills, thought, approaches, leadership and reflecting women’s importance and more equal representation and participation in society as a whole.

How can we work with ASM stakeholders to improve the lives and work of women in mining? 
The report has 14 excellent case studies with real world examples of what is being done to improve women’s work in ASM, including three case studies from Pact’s work in Colombia, Rwanda and Tanzania. We also made three recommendations to advance women’s equality in ASM:

  1. Make mining laws and economic policies gender inclusive: Fundamentally, we need make sure women are equal in legal frameworks that guarantee their rights and freedoms in society and mining, while also addressing traditional beliefs and discriminatory customary practices that prevent or limit women working in ASM. It is only by addressing this wider governance and opportunity framework that we can truly enable women’s full participation. 
  2. Advance women’s social protections at the mine and home: Structured policies and social protections such as health and work insurance, social services and support for additional burden of care women face are all needed to enable their participation in ASM. Women in mining groups and networks have been shown to be particularly effective in this regard and feature prominently in the report.
  3. Account for gendered differences in occupational health and safety efforts at mine sites: Women face particular occupational health and safety risks and challenges in ASM that need to be addressed to enable their equal participation. This includes appropriate equipment, infrastructure such as separate changing facilities, and safety measures and sensitization to minimize and eliminate gender-based violence.

Learn more about and download the 2023 State of the Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining Sector report.