Women in Artisanal & Small Scale Mining — the Hardship & the Hope

Christian is a Project Manager at Minespider.
Christian Ecker
In the ASM sector, 30–50% of workers are women. Sadly, women offer encounter sexual violence and harassment at the workplace, along with widespread prejudices about women’s productivity and capabilities. On average, women in ASM make up to 75% less than their male colleagues. We interviewed Women in Mining and Energy (WiME) in Indonesia to understand these hardships and how we can move to a fairer and more gender-equal ASM sector.
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In our first article on Artisanal & Small Scale Mining (ASM), we pointed out the sheer size of the ASM workforce: roughly 41 million people around the globe are directly employed, with another 100 million indirectly depending on the sector.

Varying across regions, 30–50% of workers are women.

These women face additional challenges on top of the already strenuous work environment, as highlighted in an IGF report.

First of all, there is sexual violence and harassment at the workplace, along with widespread prejudices about women’s productivity and capabilities. Moreover, there is economic discrimination: women are not usually involved in the actual digging of ores, which is the most profitable occupation at the mine site. Most women are employed in further processing, for example crushing, washing, or panning of ores and amalgams. Many also work in the service industry in the mining towns.

More nuanced research points out that division of labor along gender lines is not absolute and varies considerably depending on region, local culture, the ores produced, and ultimately the individuals involved. Also, steps like panning are crucial in the process, too, and should therefore not be considered as inferior.

What is true, however, is that, on average, women in ASM make up to 75% less than their male colleagues.

Because of cultural and institutional barriers, women are often less educated, and unable to access finance and hold licenses or acquire land rights, which means that they are further excluded from the most well-remunerated positions in ASM.

Ironically, in cases where such institutional, legal, or cultural discrimination exists, governmental endeavors to formalize the sector further complicate women’s full participation — unless they include measures to ensure equal access of men and women.

A Lost Opportunity — and the Response

As a result, women often face difficulties to make their ideas heard, defend their needs and interests, and shape their communities’ economic development.

Wasting the creativity and power of such a substantial segment of the workforce is a huge loss, not only to the detriment of women, but their entire community. This is supported by research highlighting that greater gender equality leads to more prosperous and peaceful societies, more profitable business, happier relationships, and happier children.

A McKinsey study points out that general equal economic participation of women and men would result in global GDP growth of USD12 trillion by 2025.

So, how can we get there?

A general approach to remedy gender inequality, not just in ASM but numerous sectors, is gender mainstreaming. In 1995, the United Nations hosted the fourth world forum on women, which resulted in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This Declaration makes gender mainstreaming mandatory for every stakeholder engaging in development policies and programs.

In essence, gender mainstreaming means that a policy’s or program’s effect on different genders is thoroughly evaluated and adapted before their implementation, in order to ensure they are not creating or reinforcing gender inequalities.

Today, this approach is practiced by developmental organizations, public, and private actors of all shapes and forms.

The IGF report cites a number of activities designed to improve women’s equal participation in ASM, ranging from legal protection and capacity building to finance and institutional support, all directed at improving women’s living and working conditions.

One of the important institutions cited in the report are associations of female workers. Among them are associations of women in mining. While miners associations are a common phenomenon in the ASM sector, women face the same challenges of not being heard. As a response, women in many countries have taken it upon themselves to organize and advocate for their cause. For this article, we had the opportunity to speak directly to one of these associations.

Women in Mining Associations.

Many countries have seen the rise of associations of women in mining. These recognize the need to join forces in order to help each other out and collectively voice concerns and ideas. For this article we spoke with Maya and Budi of Women in Mining and Energy (WiME) in Indonesia about their work.

Indonesia has a sizable ASM sector. Most miners are sourcing gold, although other notable produces are tin, silver, and coal.

Planet Gold estimates that around 300,000–500,000 people work in Artisanal and Small Scale Gold Mining (ASGM) in Indonesia, with about one million livelihoods depending on it.

Furthermore, extractive industries are an important sector of Indonesia’s economy in general.

In order to give a stronger voice to the ideas and concerns of women working in ASM and the wider extractive sectors, five women and three men founded WiME in January 2019. Five of them, including Budi and Maya, are heading WiME today.

The organization’s mission is mainstreaming gender in Indonesia’s mining and energy sectors, and working to end the rampant gender inequalities. They do so by acting as a strategic hub. Their work is based on four pillars: forming partnerships with relevant stakeholders from NGOs, government, and the private sector; collecting, managing, and disseminating knowledge and best practices in the network; educating individuals and the public; and advocating to the Indonesian government for programs and policies that enhance gender equality in the mining sector.

Credit: WiME

In the past year and a half, WiME has seen a steep growth trajectory, expanding to around 200 members and has meanwhile collaborated with the World Bank and the UNDP as well as other public and private actors. One of their regular events is a panel discussion, Ruang (Room) XY.

“Advocacy is the most important part of our work”, Maya explained. “To every Ruang we invite government officials from different ministries, to make sure we can advocate for policies that support our cause.”

It is vital, Maya continued, to share best practices and directly address issues such as gender stereotypes, which were one of last year’s topics.

“To break those stereotypes, you have to be resilient. We have to empower ourselves to live with them while at the same time speaking up against them.” For the time being, the Ruangs have moved online, which did not reduce their popularity — WiME is now reaching a wider audience, with followers dialing in from outside of Indonesia as well.

Other programs include a Graduate Mentorship Program for female STEM graduates or Masterclasses, where experts volunteer to hold webinars on a variety of topics, for example communication, marketing, and soft skills. WiME also organizes Relung, a self-help group supporting women’s mental health at the workplace, which is always joined by psychologists. Workplaces in the mining and energy industries are very male-dominated and often don’t leave much space for women to openly speak about mental health challenges they might face.

Building Bridges to ASM

The ASM sectors are included in WiME’s network through partner organizations, since miners working there are harder to reach and reliable data is close to non-existent, as Budi explains.

Budi is also the head of Pure Earth’s Indonesian chapter, one of WiME’s partners, and has ample experience working with ASGM communities. Among other issues, Pure Earth in Indonesia works with women in ASGM to help them reduce the use of mercury and connect them to better markets.

In Indonesia, Budi elaborates, women and in ASGM are usually less educated, and not aware of mercury’s toxic effects (although this is an issue across both genders). At the same time, women are perceived as weaker and less efficient (since they are taking care of household chores and their children, alongside their work) and are therefore paid less. Considering that they often take their children to work with them, it is all the more important that the use of mercury is reduced and eliminated.

To address these problems, Pure Earth focuses its attention on female miners, with considerable success. Together with the local NGO Yayasan Tambuhak Sinta (YTS), communities were taught about the dangers of mercury.

Then, YTS helped a group of women to formalize their business and trained them on mining without mercury, using sluice boxes. These are devices that pre-filter sediment, which can then be panned to recover gold particles. They then connected the mining group to a jeweler looking to buy mercury-free gold, who paid them a premium above the market price . Since mercury is often added in gold shops, where the ore is further processed and smelted, the group invited an expert who taught the women how to smelt directly at the mine site — so mercury-free gold can now be sold straight to the market.

Using a sluice box (Credit: Yayasan Tambuhak Sinta)

Budi underlines that “women hold the key” to reducing pollution and improving life in the communities.

Women take care of the health of their families, and especially that of their children, and are therefore more aware of the negative effects pollution has both on humans and their environment.

Consequently, they should be on the forefront of working for better, more responsible sourcing. Budi describes the project, which has grown from 10 to 25 participating miners, as a thorough success. In fact, it has progressed to the semi-finals of the Artisanal Mining Grand Challenge, a global competition of innovative solutions for the ASM sector.

What is WiME doing?

The role of WiME in this process is a platform to amplify such success stories, making sure that the solutions are heard and the learnings disseminated.

“It’s not a women issue. It’s a community issue”, Maya underlined.

Therefore, every effort needs to be heard, to amplify the voices of individuals and enlist ever more people on the march to greater, and ultimately total, equality.

Initial Results & Promising Growth

Budi and Maya both agree that precisely this approach of being an intermediary, and the generally independent character of WiME, has helped them generate a lot of trust among the different stakeholders in the mining and energy industries.

The trajectory proves them right, as Budi underlines: “We have started to collaborate with the UNDP and the World Bank. We are getting there.”

What’s more, companies in the mining and energy sectors are now approaching WiME, and asking for support in hiring female talent. Jointly advocating for gender equality, it seems, is incrementally propelling the cause to the highest levels in the public and private sectors.

To Wrap it Up

As we have seen, there are many challenges for women working in ASM and the wider extractive sectors.

Of the numerous solutions aiming to address them, women’s associations are a potent platform for advocacy, self-help, and education. Such organizations are powerful for two reasons:

Firstly, they give a voice to the affected women themselves, who can share and receive information first-hand.

Secondly, being a broker for solutions and a platform for advocacy renders credibility and gives voices to actors of a variety of backgrounds.

The trajectory of WiME in Indonesia shows how an organization can build clout relatively quickly, attract government attention and donor organizations, and link them directly to potential beneficiaries.

Garnering trust and cooperations with bigger organizations in the course of only a year and a half is what the two women describe as WiME’s biggest success so far:

“The relationships might not have been even in the beginning, but we are getting there. People have a lot of trust in us as they see us as an organization that is not pursuing individual interests.” Building on this trust, WiME is going to broaden their reach, extend their program offerings, and keep pursuing equal participation of women in all extractive sectors.

Want to learn more about WiME? Visit their website, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About the author
Christian is a Project Manager at Minespider.
Christian Ecker
Christian is a Project Manager at Minespider. He focuses on the implementation of traceability processes and sustainability policies, with an interest in local-level human rights & environmental impacts.

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