The Effect Of Covid-19 On Women In Artisanal Mining

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner


Artisanal Mining is a significant source of minerals and metals.  According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development 2018  the sector is estimated to produce approximately 80% of global sapphire production, 20% of gold mining, 20% of diamond mining, 26% of global tantalum and 25% of all tin.  Women make up a significant portion of the Artisanal Mining workforce. The response to COVID-19 in the sector must recognise that women in artisanal mining communities are disproportionately impacted by the virus.  Also, that women within these communities will be crucial to the successful implementation of any mitigation and recovery strategies.


Artisanal and small-scale mining (“Artisanal Mining”) is an extremely complex and widely diverse sector.  There is no homogeneous definition and the practice ranges from wholly informal subsistence mining using handheld tools to operations which have access to mechanised technologies and small-scale processing plants. 

Artisanal Mining is widespread in Africa, Oceania, Asia, Central and South America and is an important source of income for impoverished communities.  It is also a significant source of minerals and metals.  According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development 2018 the sector is estimated to produce approximately 80% of global sapphire production, 20% of gold mining, 20% of diamond mining, 26% of global tantalum and 25% of all tin.  According to the World Bank, there are approximately 100 million artisanal miners globally in approximately 80 countries worldwide, 30% of which are women (up to 50% in some regions). 

Women face a number of existing challenges in Artisanal Mining and the impact of COVID-19 will not be gender neutral.  The virus could potentially have a devastating impact on already fragile communities with weak healthcare systems and which also have high levels of violence.  The underlying poor health characteristics of Artisanal Mining communities also make them more susceptible to the effects of the virus.  The response to COVID-19 in the sector must recognise that women in Artisanal Mining communities are disproportionately impacted by the virus.  Also, that women within these communities will be crucial to the successful implementation of any mitigation and recovery strategies.

Women in Mining

Women make up a large portion of the Artisanal Mining workforce and although few actually go into the mines, they are a significant part of the mineral value chain working in extraction, transport and trade of minerals.  Activities undertaken include sorting, sluicing, washing, panning, sieving, mercury-gold amalgamation, crashing and amalgam decomposition.  Women are also heavily involved in some of the subsidiary businesses and trade around mine sites including selling equipment, transporting dirt and ores and providing food, water and other services.  

Women face a number of structural, institutional and cultural challenges in the mining sector.  This has meant that their participation in the most value bearing activities is low.  Challenges faced in the Artisanal Mining sector include lack of ownership, control and access to resourceful land and an inability to access finance to invest in essential equipment in order to upscale activities.  Women working in the Artisanal Mining sector also lack access to technology and the geological data needed for successful mining operations.  Market access is also low or non-existent for many women in Artisanal Mining.

The Effect of COVID-19 on Women in Artisanal Mining

The effects of and measures introduced to contain the spread of COVID-19 are likely to exacerbate the existing inequalities faced by women in Artisanal Mining and further expose them to health and safety issues including increased gender based violence.  As lockdown and quarantine measures are imposed and women are forced into the home, their very livelihoods are threatened.  Many operate small and often informal businesses and, in many cases, live hand to mouth.  

The case of the Mthandazo women in Zimbabwe provides a good example of some of the current issues faced by women in mining.  Despite some waivers being available for mining activities, women working at the Mthandazo gold processing centre have scaled down operations due to COVID-19.  Neighbouring mines have also alleged to have been subject to criminal activity and lost machinery due, in part, to the absence of the women onsite.  This follows reports of machete violence in the area just before the onset of COVID-19. 

As women return to the home their share of unpaid work is likely to increase.  School closures mean that women are more likely to take on the primary responsibility for childcare and housework as well as taking care of the sick and elderly.  Many live in abject poverty and in communities with poor access to reliable energy, and internet access is either limited or non-existent.  This will make any form of home schooling difficult and, unfortunately, some children may never return to school.  In times of economic crisis and severe external shocks, research has shown that the impact on young girls is disproportionate.  Simple things such as access to feminine hygiene products can mean that girls stay in the home.  Young girls may also be required to stay at home to assist with increased household chores and, in some communities, are at greater risk of early marriage.

Intersectional gender research and analysis has also shown that pandemics and other crisis situations can lead to increased levels of both physical and sexual based violence against women and children.  Quarantine and forced social isolation coupled with poverty related stress can mean that women are left face to face with their abusers with no means of relief or escape.  This can lead to increased levels of fear and mental health disorders, which can perpetuate the abuse cycle.  Furthermore, with limited healthcare capacity (as it is diverted to pandemic patients) and legal and social services restricted or scaled back, women may face additional hurdles when trying to seek help.

Access to Justice

Access to justice for women is a key issue that must be addressed in the current pandemic.  As lockdowns are imposed, courts in a number of jurisdictions have closed and proceedings delayed.  In jurisdictions where access to justice for women is not always guaranteed, this causes great concern.  The World Bank, in collaboration with the International Development Law Organisation, UN Women, UNDP, UNODC and The Elders Foundation, recently launched the “Justice for Women Amidst COVID-19 Report”, which highlights the challenges faced by women in times of pandemic. 

We are likely to see increased delays in adjudicating divorce, domestic violence and the issuance of restraining and child protection orders.  Inheritance and land claims are also likely to augment existing case backlogs.  In jurisdictions that do not have developed e-justice systems or capacity to operate remotely using video or tele conference facilities, the impact is likely to be greater.  As part of the COVID-19 response, and as the formal court system struggles to adapt to the “new normal”, increased investment in customary and informal justice systems, which have been traditionally under-funded, may be beneficial.

Leveraging Women in Artisanal Mining for Solutions

Women form a significant portion of subsistence farmers, providing most of the labour required to produce food crops.  The central role of women in food security and the management of household water and energy needs mean that they are acutely aware of the interlinkages between food security and mining and the environmental threat posed by Artisanal Mining.  Soil degradation and land erosion means that food cannot be grown, which can lead to famine.  The use of toxic chemicals such as mercury (used in the extraction of gold from ore) affects local water supply and can contaminate crops in farmlands potentially disrupting entire ecosystems including the human food chain.  Practices such as diverting rivers in order to access mineral rich riverbeds and cutting forests are also extremely harmful to the environment and threaten food security.  

Women play a pivotal role in rural economies and the often seasonal alternations between mining and farming in order to supplement household income (Artisanal Mining often affords higher income than agriculture) means that the effect of one activity on the other is evident.  Women in Artisanal Mining are therefore well positioned to lead and to help to mitigate a number of the negative effects of Artisanal Mining.  As such, COVID-19 relief efforts in the mining sector should leverage women in Artisanal Mining focusing on the essential role that they also play in food security.  Greater investment should be made in agriculture with a focus on gender and target the key areas of linkage.  This will inevitably help to promote better practices and to build a more integrated and sustainable model for rural development.

Women in mining already face a number of barriers to obtaining finance.  As the effects of COVID-19 are felt throughout local economies, access to open and affordable finance and credit lines is fundamental to the survival of small and informal businesses.  Focused strategies for a COVID-19 response in the Artisanal Mining sector may include microfinance initiatives and gender focused banks in villages with incentives to encourage land ownership for women.   Government and regulatory entities should also look at the process of how mining licences are awarded and how the criteria is applied to, and enforced with respect to, women. 

Networks which encourage the pooling of mining equipment and technology among women could also be extremely beneficial.  Information sharing and providing access in local communities to the market price of commodities is also crucial in enabling women to achieve fair market value for minerals.  The provision of institutional services such as affordable childcare facilities would also be a game changer. 

As governments implement plans to lift lockdown restrictions across the world, collaborative initiatives, both at the local and international level, which improves conditions for women in Artisanal Mining, must be a key agenda item.  Investors and other stakeholders in the mineral value chain (no matter how far removed from actual mining) should be encouraged to undertake comprehensive risk-based due diligence in order to identify vulnerabilities for women.  This will lead to greater community impact and more sustainable growth.  Large-scale mining can also play a role in bringing about better outcomes.

Targeting women with progressive education at all levels of the Artisanal Mining supply chain is also fundamental in promoting sustainable economic development and achieving a reduction in poverty.  Basic skills training, literacy support and training in how to access information should also be a priority.  Women should also be supported in the professions to become engineers, geologists, electrical engineers and surveyors.  Men are a crucial part of this process and should also be educated as to the specific challenges faced by women in the sector. 

Regulation and Formalisation of Artisanal mining

As governments around the world recognise the growth of the Artisanal Mining sector and its potential for revenue generation, job creation and poverty alleviation, many have moved to implement legislation that formalises and regulates the sector. 

In Sub-Saharan Africa, a number of countries have moved to legalise Artisanal Mining activities by introducing specific legislation designed to protect the environment and the health and safety of miners.  Some Acts attempt to define and distinguish between artisanal, traditional and small-scale mining.  In some cases, the distinction is made by reference to the level of investment made and, in other cases, to depths reached and the use of mechanised technology or involving the sinking of shafts, driving of adits, or other various underground openings.  However, in many jurisdictions, the legal distinctions are not clear and the licencing regime does not address the full spectrum of Artisanal Mining activities, thus deeming some activities to be illegal.  This has caused challenges for a number of governments.

Governments should take specific advice and work with legal experts to develop robust legal frameworks that deal with alternative forms of mining licences and mineral rights.  This will help to strengthen their institutional capacity and allow for a more targeted approach to the Artisanal Mining sector and better monitoring and enforcement of Artisanal Mining activities. 

Legal experts can also assist with international benchmarking and advice with respect to regional comparisons and international best practice.  Recently, key areas of review have included legal and fiscal stabilisation, royalties and other state interests. 

Governments around the world are also paying greater attention to women in mining and, in future, efforts by governments should also consider and incorporate plans to allow women to have better access to affordable finance, markets and skills training on sustainable mining techniques.  Access to permits and other mining rights for women is also important.  The formation of associations, cooperatives and other support networks for women in mining will also help to integrate them into the wider economy and reduce some of the social and economic marginalisation in the sector.


There will continue to be increased demand for minerals and metals as the world transitions to low-carbon economies.  The resources required for renewable energy technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels are already substantial.  Furthermore, Artisanal Mining produces much of the minerals required for everyday battery-powered devices including laptops, mobile phones and electric cars.  This demand needs to be managed and sourced in an environmentally sustainable way.  Part of this will be to ensure the physical and economic security of women who form a significant proportion of the Artisanal Mining workforce.  Efforts should also be made to ensure that women in the sector benefit fairly from the enormous value which they help to create. 

As steps are taken to ease lockdown restrictions around the world, the effects of COVID-19 are likely to be long-standing.  It is important that the road to recovery includes a gendered response if we are not to undo much of the good work already done in terms of gender equality and poverty reduction.  Dr. James Emmanuel Kwegyir-Aggrey famously said, “If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family (nation)”.  Targeting women in Artisanal Mining has the potential to touch on all 17 of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.  Therefore, gender equality, generally and within Artisanal Mining, must be a key priority for governments in order to achieve inclusive growth and sustainable economic and social development in a post COVID-19 world. 

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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