Women Artisanal Miners Join the Penhalonga Gold Rush
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. Desperate to feed their families, it is a common sight in Penhalonga to observe artisanal female gold miners tapping into this once predominantly masculine working environment.
Situated approximately 20 km from the mountainous town of Mutare, in the Eastern region close to the Mozambican border, Penhalonga is endowed with vast gold resources, with the majority of the gold belts owned by two Russian mining companies, Redwing Mine and DTZ-OZGEO.
But breaking into the gold mining business alongside men is by far a stroll in the park for the women, who have in many cases revealed that the hostile working environment exposes them to various forms of abuses. Some have reported to have been raped, while others have been lured into prostitution as a way to maintain their claims in the mines. It is believed that only those with stronger political connections to the ruling ZANU PF party manage to get their share of gold.
Furthermore, the situation is worsened by arbitrary arrests, harassments and physical assaults by the security officers guarding the mines to keep artisanal miners out. The fact that the security guards employed by the mining companies are often from the same communities as the artisanal miners further exacerbates tensions and rivalries in the Penhalonga community, sowing seeds of hatred as they feel betrayed by their own kith and kin.
In an interview with CNRG, Ward 21 Councillor Tsverukai Duwa clarified how other women have had to work under embarrassing conditions that are not in line with customary norms and values, though the economic hardship leaves them with no choice.
“It is not easy to be an artisanal miner if you are a woman. It is even more difficult to work together with our sons and sons-in-law because at times they work without clothes on and according to our traditions I should not see my adult son half dressed”, she said.
About 19 years ago, when DTZ OZGEO started alluvial gold mining in Penhalonga, the company grabbed huge portions of land which had been used to cultivate crops by the local community, resulting in extensive land conflict.
According to Councillor Duwa, the lack of any compensation for the lost lands and the resultant loss of livelihoods forced women to venture into artisanal gold mining in a desperate bid to eke out a living.
The councillor revealed how, through its mining operations, DTZ OZGEO exhausted Mutare River, on which the Penhalonga community depended. She added that the other problem with the DTZ OZGEO activities was the wanton distraction of vegetation which has caused extensive degradation which has been worsened by the artisanal miners’ ‘hit and run’ methods of gold panning due to their illegal status which does not allow them time to fill the trenches after digging. The community has hence been left with unproductive land not suitable for agricultural purpose, whilst the lack of water has been intensified by the prevailing El Nino induced drought.
The workshop engaged the women in the community in a bid to understand their environment from a political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental perspective; moreover, CNRG helped them draft work plans to guide them to research on their own about the changes brought by mining operations in the area.
While upon commencing operations, the mining companies made promises to fulfil corporate social responsibilities towards the Penhalonga community, most have remained to date unfulfilled. The same situation has been reported in Hwange, Mutoko, Bikita and other mining communities around the country.
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. Efforts are under way to entitle them with licences 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.