Life’s realities of Women from the wealthy mines of DR Congo

If I had other means that would feed my children, I would never step into those threatening darkness; they seem to me like graveyards”, mentioned one young woman who depended solely on the earnings she received from the mines.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the wealthiest country in the World in terms of natural resources – specifically minerals. Three quarter of the area, 2.345.000Km, is filled with mineral ores such as coltan, nickel, copper, cobalt, zinc, magnesium, limestone, diamond, gold and more. Geologists describe Congo as a land of wonder regarding its potential deposit which is untapped, and more is yet to discover. The Southern part of the country has a deposit of 80% of Cobalt produced in the World and 50% of Copper. These products are used into the manufacture of electrical vehicles, electricity wires, just to name a few.

However the mineral-rich geography of Congo has turned to be the curse of this country plunged in an unfinished war because of the invasion by outsiders who lust the wealth found in the North and South East region. Intrusion from neighboring countries led to fights between the national army, warlords and armed rebel groups.  Therefore, war has incited towards creating a breach through which raw materials are illegitimately looted by both, the powerful nationals and outsiders. The coltan (used in the manufacturing of cellphones, computer, etc.) and gold is at the heart of this conflict, driving the country into extreme poverty, causing the downfall of economy nationwide. Men, women and children face the most precarious socioeconomic conditions, violence and diseases leading to internal displacements in search of greener pastures and security. In fact, this conflict has been described as the bloodiest after the World War II.

On the other hand, the South part, Ex-Katanga province, faces its own challenges due to the quantity of copper and cobalt. This part of the country has seen the implantation of World’s biggest multinational companies specialized in the exploitation, production and exportation of copper and cobalt sold on the global market level. These mining companies employing Congolese and foreigners aim at transforming the raw materials into finished products using industrialized mining methods. Conversely, artisanal mining is sprouting around any place where there is a mining company or at a place where the products can be extracted from the ground. This activity is exercised by mainly men who are locally called ‘Creuseurs’, meaning diggers. The products gathered at the price of intensive physical labor are directly sold to Chinese into the local markets established at this purpose.

Yet, the crucial side of it is that women and children are also involved in the mines. Women found in the artisanal mines gather, sift and pack the products into bags of up to 25kg. In the Lualaba province, in the village of Kinsenda located 42km away from the main town Kolwezi, women collect products in the so called artisanal mines. Kinsenda is just beside a big mining company. Majority of women from this community involve in this activity in a hazardous areas in order to support their poverty stricken household, or to lend a helping hand to their husbands. “I work and collect products here to help my husband so he earns more money to support the family; it is otherwise hard to make ends meet and care for our children” said one woman from the mine fields. For some other women, the money earned is used to reinforce an existing business, to create an extra source of income. Women simultaneously engage in two or more activities; along with working in the mines, they also use every bit of their time as vendors selling fish or vegetables, and in farming.

However, mining in artisanal mines can be very jeopardizing for women and children as they neither have any safety regulations in the mine fields, nor do the workers wear any minimum personal protection. Therefore, working in such an environment can be very challenging for the women’s body and health.

Moreover, children and teens of all ages ranging from 5 – 15 are found wandering around the mine fields, helping their mothers to gather, sift and pack products. These children use bare hands which damage their skin and induce serious health problems. A young mother expressed, “I have to bring my young child along with me here so that she helps me, and also continues working when I have to run out to sell my products, or buy items for my small home business. If we don’t manage everything, we won’t have enough to live on”.  Mothers are forced to leave even their girl children out in the mine fields to work. This does not just affect the health of the girls, but also various other kinds of risks to her dignity and life. Boys and girls working with raw materials, and carrying heavy bags on their heads are at risk of decrease in physical growth, and of developing spinal and back pains.

The case of pregnant women is even worse. Carrying heavy burden leads to miscarriages, infant mortality, child mortality, maternal mortality, deformities and disabilities, and also affects the health of the woman after child birth. “I know that this work is harsh for our health and would result in negative consequences; yet we do not have any choice because living cost is so expensive in our village, and we have to even buy water every day, as we don’t receive safe water in our village” stated one pregnant woman.

Women and children are the most vulnerable in any given scenario; whether it is in a family, society, in war or displacement, or even in work places, it is always the women and mostly the girl children who endure sufferings in the form of ill- health, insecurity, sexual and emotional violence and inequality. Poverty, lack of resources and unavailability of basic services, affect the women and girl children more than it is for men and boys.

Though in some instances, the authorities forbid women and children accessing the artisanal mines, in order to protect them from disaster and health hazards, low economic conditions or extreme poverty force women into the mines.

Campaigns have been carried out by the Lualaba local authorities together with NGO’s to raise awareness about dangers women and children can encounter while working on artisanal mines. This initiative is carried out in order to mitigate the presence of women and children in artisanal mines, and to care for their health and security.

Even though initiatives are carried out to bring the women children out of the dangerous mind fields, steps are not taken to introduce other economic opportunities for women to earn for their living. With the tight job market, women suffer in finding work that would bring them reasonable wages. Also the unequal pay between men and women brings frustration to the women. Hence women break the rules and barriers, and step back into the dark fields, to engage in mining, to prevent their families from being in hunger.

Linda Kisonto  |  DR Congo