Is Gender Inclusivity Possible in Cameroon’s Artisanal Mining Sector?

A woman pans for gold in Kambele 3, east region of Cameroon.

The artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) sector is a crucial source of livelihood for thousands of people in Cameroon. In the Eastern region of Cameroon, many women are involved in ASM, where they play a significant role in gold and, to an extent, in diamond mining. However, women face numerous challenges in the mine sites due to gender disparities. They are generally relegated to the background by society, need more financial means to obtain their mining equipment to operate and have no land ownership.

Studies such as “Mine Decline and Women: Reflections from the Free State Goldfields” by the Center for Development Support at the University of the Free State have found that the mining industry is primarily dominated by men, with cultural norms often limiting women’s participation to peripheral roles such as crashing, sluicing, washing, and panning, Sieving, sorting, mercury-gold amalgamation, amalgam decomposition, and, on rare occasions, own mining concessions. They are also active in providing goods and services to male miners. Women are 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.

Women have always been a part of the mining workforce, but they are often forced to join the Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM) sector due to limited employment opportunities in rural areas, poverty, and high cost of living. Studies, such as “Women’s position in artisanal and small-scale mining in Sub-Saharan Africa: A systematic literature review” by Paschal, M., and Kauangal, J., have shown that high dependency ratios in extended families can also lead women to the ASM sector. Additionally, drought and low agricultural production, or when women are widowed or divorced and their husband’s family confiscates their agricultural land, can also push women into the ASM sector.

In most mining communities in Cameroon, women are considered unequal to their male counterparts, and they face different economic challenges because of the lack of access to, use of, and control over resourceful land and other productive resources, licenses, finance, and geological data. Women face obstacles in utilizing economic opportunities due to traditional beliefs that deny them control over their earnings. Additionally, women often experience discrimination and are placed in a lower order in policy decisions that affect them. Accessing finance hinders their ability to invest in essential mining equipment and technology, which is crucial for a successful business.

These barriers like elsewhere manifest in many mining communities in Cameroon’s East Region with a traditional belief connotation that women cause a “spirit” of bad luck when near minerals or mineral-bearing stones, hence the justification for banning them from pits. Some beliefs even suggest that women should not go to the mine when experiencing their menstrual period because the spirit that controls the mineral does not like blood. If the spirit smells blood, it can get angry and cause landslides, or the ore could disappear from the pit. Even though it is impossible to know when a woman is on her period, it is preferred to deny her access to avoid any displeasure of the spirit. Furthermore, superstition assumes that the spirit in question is a woman and is jealous whenever another woman finds herself in the pit. In some other communities, women are not allowed to go close to gold mining fields.

A woman in Batouri washes sand to search for gold.

Despite facing numerous challenges like sexual abuse and economic exploitation, female artisanal miners continue to make significant contributions to the mining sector. By participating in ASM mining, they diversify the labour force in the sector, bringing different skills and experiences to mining activities. They contribute to household income and local economies, while also gaining economic independence, empowerment, and increased decision-making power within their households through their involvement in ASM mining.

Bridging the Gender Gap

To address these challenges, there is a need for gender-inclusive policies that recognize the contributions of women in the mining sector. Apart from the cultural effects of Gender -Based violence, women in ASM mining in Cameroon face a myriad of challenges, including limited access to education and training, health hazards due to exposure to toxic chemicals like mercury and cyanide, lack of legal recognition and land rights, and economic exploitation characterized by low wages and limited access to financial resources.

Gender-inclusive policies require understanding gender roles and inequalities in the mining sector. Governments and mining companies need to recognize the unique needs of women and provide them with opportunities to participate in the sector. One way to achieve gender inclusivity is by providing women with access to finance. Governments and mining companies can provide women access to loans and financing to invest in essential mining equipment and technology. This will enable women to compete on an equal footing with men and improve their livelihoods.

With many of the women under-educated in Cameroon’s Eastern region, the Artisanal mining sector has a growing number of female artisanal miners especially in gold mining.

Woman digs for gold in Kentzou, East Cameroon

Another way to achieve gender inclusivity is by providing women with education and training. Governments and companies can train women in mining techniques, safety measures, and business skills. This will enable women to improve their efficiency and productivity in the mining sector and enhance their earning potential.

In conclusion, gender inclusivity in the artisanal and small-scale mining sector is possible, but it requires concerted efforts from governments, mining companies, and other stakeholders like governmental organizations (NGOs), local communities, women’s advocacy groups, and international development agencies. Policies that recognize the unique needs of women in the mining sector and provide them with access to finance, education, and training are critical to achieving gender inclusivity. By addressing gender disparities in the mining sector, we can promote sustainable development, reduce poverty, and promote social justice in Cameroon.

To achieve gender inclusivity in the mining sector, policies and financing are not enough. Advocacy and awareness-raising campaigns are needed to promote women’s inclusion in the sector. Additionally, measures need to be taken to protect women from sexual abuse and exploitation. Governments and mining companies must work together to ensure that women are given equal opportunities and treated with respect and dignity. This year’s International Women’s Day theme is “Invest in women: Accelerate progress.” This theme highlights the need to invest in women’s education, healthcare, economic empowerment, and leadership development to accelerate progress towards gender equality. A shift in societal attitudes towards women is required, and their contribution to the industry should be recognized.

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