In the mining industry, a distinction exists between large-scale mining (LSM) and artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM).  Artisanal mining usually refers to purely manual mining conducted on a very small-scale, whereas small-scale mining is generally more mechanized and conducted on a larger scale.   In many parts of the world, ASM plays a significant role alongside LSM, particularly regarding the number of people employed by the sector.

In 1998, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that 13 million people were directly employed in ASM, and up to 100 million depended on it.   More recently citing World Bank figures, the ICMM says there are 15 to 20 million ASMs operating in 30 countries, with about 80 to 100 million people depending on such mining for the livelihood..

From a production value perspective, artisanal and small scale mining accounts for a significant proportion of total world production.” ICMM figures show the following estimates of the ASM shares of world production: Tantalum (26%), Tin (25%), Gold (25%), Tungsten (less than 6%), iron ore (less than 4%), lead (3%), zinc (1%) and copper (0.5%). The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) estimates that 15-20 per cent of global minerals and metals derive from artisanal mining (IIED, 2013.)

The Tanzanian government has estimated that small-scale mining generates at least three jobs for each individual directly involved. A few governments have adopted more inclusive policies on ASM (e.g., Uganda, Sierra Leone, Mongolia and Ghana) and show an increasing recognition of ASM as a legitimate route out of poverty.   NGOs such as the Diamond Development Initiative are in the process of implementing pilot programs for sustainable artisanal mining and to ensure that international standards, such as the Kimberly process, adequately incorporate the ASM sector as a legitimate player in the mining industry.   What’s needed now is for governments, businesses, and civil society to go beyond legislation and paper commitments towards implementing widely disseminated best practices that will see improvements in a sector that is here to stay and expected to grow in the foreseeable future.

History and examples from elsewhere on the continent and throughout the world would suggest that the increased focus and growth of large scale mining will follow the same trajectory of increasing unemployment, growing exploitation and poverty for rural dwellers and communities affected by mining unless this sector is legitimised and managed.

Large scale industrial mining is tearing through the countryside of Africa, sucking up land, natural resources and exploiting cheap labour at an unprecedented scale. This production model, which stands in opposition to other forms of mining that are small-scale, artisanal and traditional in nature, typically creates few benefits for local communities, indeed even the wider citizenry, oriented as it is to maximum exploitation of land, natural resources and labour in the interests of profit.

In many countries, the legal and regulatory framework applying to the minerals sector is weak or for all intents and purposes practically “non-existent”, as are related policies and laws associated with land rights and natural resources. The combined effect of which, is that communities, and women who have less power within these communities, are left extremely vulnerable, destitute and poverty stricken.

This state of affairs may, cynically perhaps, be supported and sustained by governments of the region, who in their competition for the Holy Grail of foreign investment and capture of economic rents, may collude with powerful corporations to limit the safeguards and protections that could undercut corporate profits.  Where protective laws and policies are in place, these may be flouted by corporations, especially where the monitoring, regulatory and enforcement policies and capacity are not in place or weak.

The weaker the state (those in civil war, emergent from war, impoverished etc.) the easier it is for a corporate to override even those laws and regulations that may exist. Corporations are not self-motivated to adhere to human rights frameworks, which present them with operational costs such as compensating communities, investing in community development, or cleaning up environmental damages, that reduce their profits. In the absence of strong laws, monitoring, enforcement and penalties, we cannot expect that corporations will engage in these activities voluntarily, unless communities and civil society are organised, to closely monitor corporations and to confront them when these minimum criteria are not met.

Within the scenario described above, poor rural and urban women are undoubtedly the most negatively impacted, socially and economically, as their lands are taken, as forests are destroyed, as water supplies are diverted, polluted and exhausted, and as local control over seeds and traditional forms of production are eroded by mining activities.

Women are the primary producers and processors of food and their livelihoods and those of their dependents are therefore deeply impacted when communities are displaced from their farming lands and when male labour is absorbed into the mines leading to greater labour burdens on women and children

When mining occurs, poor rural women are likely to obtain the most marginal and lowest paid jobs on industrial mines, and are particularly vulnerable when exposed to artisanal, small scale mining. Research surveyed shows how women experience multiple exploitations in their role as workers on the mines.

Firstly, they are subject to the same working conditions (which generally is exploitative) as their male compatriots; secondly, they  may be subject to sexual harassment and gender based violence of male supervisors and workers; and finally, they may experience social pressure from their families and communities for their participation in ‘non-traditional’ work and for ‘displacing’ more deserving male workers

New evidence presented by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), challenges the general understanding of gender roles in small-scale mining communities. It forces us to acknowledge a more intricate reality for boys and girls as the evidence shows that the involvement of girl child labour in mining is much more frequent and far-reaching than was previously recognized. The assumption that girls are only involved in transactional sex and domestic work is incorrect; girls are involved in tasks related to the extraction, transportation and processing stages of mining as well as in other mining-related jobs such as selling food and supplies to the miners.

The gender balance appears to be shifting. Girls are involved in more and more hazardous occupations deeper into the interiors of the mine, but at the same time they are also upheld to their traditional female responsibilities in the home. The result is that girls in mining communities are forced to juggle their domestic tasks with other paid or non-paid work.

Often, girls are performing just as hazardous tasks as boys, working longer hours, with a greater workload and often have a lesser chance of schooling, withdrawal or rehabilitation.

The family orientation of small-scale mining is a key to understanding the causes of girl child labour. In these communities, mining is often a family activity. From extraction to processing to retail, plus the support services in between, the whole family is involved in the daily survival of the household amidst very harsh conditions.

Although some women are self-employed, running a stall or panning their own section of a river bank, for example, the work of women and girls has generally been perceived as family help, perhaps supportive to the productivity or income of their male counterparts.

Nevertheless, evidence from Peru suggests that the role of the woman is changing. Although still excluded from underground extraction, women are involved in tasks deeper and deeper into the interior of the mine, transporting materials, removing rubble and rocks from the mines, sorting mineralized rocks, breaking stones and processing the minerals.

Women are also found to be exclusively responsible for domestic tasks such as preparing food, caring for children, cleaning, washing and fetching firewood and water. The modern woman in small-scale mining upholds a double presence in the household, obliged to work in order to supplement the unsteady and sometimes desperate family income, and locked into the chores of the home.

Naturally girls and boys inherit the gender roles of adult women and men. From a young age, girls are suffering from the double burden of an increasingly hazardous and arduous workload and the domestic responsibilities in the home. Trapped between these twin pressures, girls in small-scale mining communities are especially vulnerable as their schooling inevitably suffers and their physical and emotional well-being is under threat.

The research shows that a certain amount of sexual harassment, abuse and commercial sexual exploitation of girls and women is evident across all the study zones.

Most alarmingly, in the Mirerani mining zone of the United Republic of Tanzania, 85 out of the 130 girls interviewed revealed that they were engaged in commercial sex work, 25 of whom practise it full time, which demonstrates the high level of demand for sex with young girls in the masculine mining environments. Many of these girls were employed in other occupations but engaged in commercial sex as well.

We cannot dismiss the attraction of mining as a career prospect for poor citizens of mineral rich societies, even girls and boys. In spite of its association with extreme poverty, indecent working and living conditions, labour exploitation and rights abuse, the industry continues to attract a steady flow of economic migrants year upon year, seeking a way out of poverty. Whether they are well informed or not, these migrants view small-scale mining as a better alternative to the lives they already lead. Whilst the work can be seen by external observers as dirty, dangerous and disruptive, thousands of new migrants every year see it as a potentially profitable escape from poverty  and even as a valuable career path for their children.

Way Forward

  1. An annual conference to consider the question of artisanal mining in order to understand the challenges and to bring the activities of artisanal miners into the mainstream protection and support of the state.
  2. Build Public support for the decriminalisation of ASM`s so that miners can be trained and safety standards can be maintained and whole communities can be freed from the oppression of criminal gangs.
  3. The conference should consider how markets for the sale of ASM mined minerals and for the purchase chemicals such as mercury, can be created to ensure the regulation of the sector and the protection of human and environmental health.
  4. The conference should pay special attention to the intersections where women are faced with violence, oppression and exploitation in order to ensure that protections and safeguards are built into the legislation which decriminalises ASM and brings the sector under the protection of the state.
  5. The Conference should advocate for legislation and policy that seeks to build and encourage cooperative formations that can help ASM communities to thrive together and ensure safety and benefits for miners and communities.


  1. The Conference should seek to develop advocacy strategies to promote ASM legal frameworks for both national and regional levels.
  2. Involve mining communities where ASM activities occur, to participate in the policy process at grassroots levels.
  3. Legislation must be empowering for ASM and for the communities that depend on it for their livelihoods and must not be prohibitive especially where no other alternatives are available to communities living in poverty.
  4. Legislation and Policy should ensure that Artisanal industrial beneficiation is funded and supported in order to create industrial capacity at local level that can serve as alternatives to mining for communities living in poverty.
  5. Assist civil society to build ASM resistance to violence, abuse, exploitation and oppression and support efforts to strengthen the agency of ASM communities, especially women and children.
  6. Encourage self-organisation of ASM miners and communities especially women.
  7. Support the development of ASM guilds and associations to advocate for legislative changes.