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Susan Muchirahondo-Left-with a colleague panning for gold

Women fight for gender equality in artisanal mining


PENHALONGA – Defying all odds, Susan Muchirahondo (38), during the early morning treks up and down the hill, carrying sacks on her back crammed with river sand that she sifts through in hope of finding a speck of gold.

Muchirahondo, a single mother with two children aged 14 and eight has joined women who have taken up artisanal mining and put their lives at risk in the pursuit of gold at Redwing Mine in Penhalonga, where dozens of smaller operators and hundreds of unlicensed artisanal miners have besieged to eke out a living.

After enduring a devastating life, punctuated by wretched poverty, Muchirahondo joined other women to tolerate all kinds of hardships – from non-existent safety standards to the threat of being buried alive – just to put food on the table.

“I have no option, but to find means to fend for my children who are of school-going age. At times we are unable to own these mining claims because we do not have the means,” she said.

Another artisanal miner, Shylet Saungweme (33) said the artisanal mining sector in the country remains ‘risky and disgracefully inhospitable’ to women.

“Breaking into the gold mining business alongside men is by far a stroll in the park. We are in a hostile working environment that has exposed us to various forms of abuses. Some have been raped, while others have been lured into prostitution as a way to maintain their claims in the mines,” Saungweme said.

In various interviews by this publication recently, womens’ groups in Zimbabwe have called for support from multi-sectors and government towards the fight for gender inequality in the artisanal mining sector.

The Zimbabwe Gender Commission (ZGC) commissioner Naome Chimbetete decried the existence of women in artisanal mining as condemnation on policymakers.

“Women involvement in the mining sector is limited in both the formal and informal mining. Statistics from the sector show that 85 and 82 percent of players in the formal and informal mining respectively, are men. Women are relegated to the peripheries of the value chain,” said Chimbetete.

“Lack of consultation by government is worsening this situation. As a commission, we are pushing for the recognition of women in artisanal mining and all other sectors,” she said.

Chimbetete said regulatory frameworks and policies must be robust to ensure responsiveness to barriers and other roles that impact the participation of women in artisanal and small scale miners.

Dorcas Makaza-Kanyimo, the acting director for Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA) said it was imperative for the government to have a mining policy that is responsive to women’s needs in the sector.

“The Ministry of Mines should run programs that promote women in mining in terms of allocating machines, and allow women to access these loans with minimum requirements in terms of collateral, as women do not have the collateral required by banks,” Makaza-Kanyimo said.

She said WLSA Zimbabwe provides education and outreach to ensure women in the extractives industry understand the legal framework.

“We have been supporting these women on how one can get a legal mining claim, as we know most women are mining illegally as artisanal miners and operating in an unregulated environment. This makes women vulnerable as a lot of things happen in that environment. Women can experience violence, rape, be elbowed out by men and cheated by gold buyers when they try to sell their gold,” said Makaza-Kanyimo.

Simiso Mlevu who is the Projects and Communication Manager at the Centre For Natural Resource and Governance (CNRG), said the Mines and Minerals Bill needs to recognize artisanal mining as an activity which contributes to the economy.

“We need to decriminalize it so that women can operate in a free environment without being harassed,” said Mlevu adding that her organization has since trained 27 women artisanal miners who are now operating in syndicates and have their own claims.

“Gold and diamond panning has traditionally been associated with uncivil, fierce-looking men, with women often expected to perform more feminine roles. However, this widely shared societal perception has been debunked as over the years more women have joined the once male-dominated mining sector,” Mlevu said.

“In its role as an organisation fighting to improve the natural resource governance in the country, CNRG has an obligation to assist female artisanal miners in Penhalonga in their struggle to get their fair share of the mineral wealth in their community,” said Mlevu.

“Efforts are under way to entitle them with licenses in order to formalize their work, to allow them to mine freely and to ensure the protection of their basic rights; yet, the road ahead is still long, because of the government’s reluctance to give artisanal miners the recognition they deserve,” she said.

Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA) has a new project that is supporting gender equality in the artisanal mining sectors in Zimbabwe.

The Digging for Equality Project will support women working in the artisanal mining sector to reduce barriers they face and support their efforts towards gender equality.

ZELA’s Project Officer Nobuhle Mabhikwa said the project will build the capacity of local mining organizations and their members to improve economic benefits for women in the sector.

“The project will promote women’s leadership at the mine site and community by supporting artisanal mining associations and cooperative to adopt more inclusive models,” she said.

“We have to ensure women miners are included in these decision making processes and are part of the leadership in mining communities. This project is an important step forward in ensuring women voices are heard,” said Mabhikwa.

She said the Digging for Equality project will promote a legal and regulatory context to enhance women’s security, gender equality and their participation in the sector.

The Minister of Mines and Mining Development Winstone Chitando said there were initiatives set in place by the government and urged women leadership in the mining industry to make sure more women are empowered.

“There are two initiatives, the first initiative is on the part of Government. The second initiative is on women leadership in the mining industry. We have the Zimbabwe Miners Federation, a federation of many different associations that also looks at women in mining,” Chitando said.

“It is our wish as Government to see closer working relationship between Zimbabwe Women in Mining and the Zimbabwe Miners Federation. If there are any issues, we are going to see how we can make women empowerment in the mining industry easier,” said the minister.

Mining in Zimbabwe has been largely a men’s affair, but women are slowly making inroads in the sector. Despite the basic methods still used in artisanal mining, women are now wielding picks and shovels alongside men, as they scavenge for valuable minerals.

Currently, Zimbabwe is still governed by the 1961 Mines and Mineral Act, which was enacted during the colonial era. Calls are now mounting to ensure the new mining statutes are more gender responsive.