Limited Opportunity in a Land of Plenty: The Congolese Girl-Child in the Mines
Sadly, the labour is done mainly by children. Research shows that Congolese girl-children are increasingly being involved in this sector, with dire and worrying consequences. Basic survival overrules all else and human rights are neither respected nor protected, especially the rights of the girl-child.
In a recent research entitled ‘Briser la chaîne’, Pact International (2013: 3) reveals that ‘an estimated 12 to 15 percent of the Congolese population relies’ on artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). The reality is that this kind of mining is characterised by exploitation, cheap labour and unregulated and often hazardous working conditions as well as the risk of sexual and physical abuse, especially of women and girls. Sadly, the labour is done mainly by children. Research shows that Congolese girl-children are increasingly being involved in this sector, with dire and worrying consequences. Basic survival overrules all else and human rights are neither respected nor protected, especially the rights of the girl-child.
Some have looked at the girl-child in artisanal mining as victims, while others see them as pursuing an opportunity that gives them the choice to build a certain future for themselves. Géraldine André and Marie Godin (2012) ask a pertinent question: Should children in the mines be considered victims entangled in the neoliberal flow of raw materials or could their situation result from the choices they themselves have made? In light of the situation, the use of the word ‘victims’ implies perpetrators and specific conditions in which the abuse occurs. It also refers to the idea of legal protection on one hand and redress on the other hand. The author’s view is that there are no choices available for the Congolese girl-children who undergo the cycles of poverty in a land of plenty. Something needs to be done and urgently so.
The severe situation in the ASM sector has generally been attributed to the absence of proper mining policy frameworks in the DRC. Since the work is hazardous and jeopardises the body and psychological integrity, especially of children, this paper draws attention to the often ignored plight of the girl-child in this sector, highlighting the risks, the drivers for their engagement in the sector and proposes the legal and social responses required to ensure that these girl-children have a better future.
An Environment Hazardous for Children and Others
One of the key challenges girl-children face on an unprecedented scale in ASM is the breach of basic health standards. Reports (World Vision, 2013; Pact International, 2013) have shown that the Congolese girl-children working in the mines suffer from, among others, lumbar pains, physical deformation, bone fractures, skin diseases, lung and other forms of cancer due to exposure to dust and mineral substances and exposure to radioactivity as well as an absence of clinics and other medical centres for healthcare and treatment. The abuse of alcohol and drugs and high sexual activity with an elevated potential for HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases spreading are all dangers lurking in these environments (World Vision, 2013; Pact International, 2013).
For example, a World Vision study (2013: 31) on artisanal mines in Katanga reveals that, since their involvement in mining activities, 34 percent of the children have suffered from skin irritations, 67 percent have experienced a frequent or persistent cough, 25 percent have developed sight problems, 87 percent have experienced muscular pains and 30 percent suffer from recurring dizziness. Of this sample, 62 percent are girl-children (ibid). The parents of children working in the mines have also expressed concern about exposure to radiation due to uranium in the mines and vaginal infections caused by infected water. This has been linked to difficult pregnancies and the poor health of babies delivered in these areas (World Vision, 2013).
Because medical clinics in most of the mining areas are not well equipped, most of the women and girl-children self-medicate to relieve these problems (World Vision, 2013). Self-medication is often unregulated and users’ bodies get used to antibiotics, reducing their efficacy in future. This has also been associated with complications in pregnancy as the women and girls often have babies presenting with malformations (World Vision, 2013). Although no study on the direct impact of irradiation and vaginal infections on pregnancies have been published thus far, a correlation is highly likely.
The Push and Pull Factors
What drives young girls and children to endure this unhealthy, dangerous environment? What are the push and pull factors? The push factors refer to those elements or situations that lead the girl-child to engage in activities at a mining site. The pull factors refer to those elements or situations that initially attract the girl-child to the mining sector. It is a weighting of these pull and push factors that have led some to categorise these children as either victims or opportunists.
One of the push factors is the general societal acceptance of child labour as a strategy for poverty alleviation. International Labour Organisation (ILO, 2011: 13) research on children and hazardous work declares that ‘children are not adults in miniature’ but parents and mine owners in the ASM sector seem not to understand this issue. Although parents are conscious of the dangers, they continue to see child labour in the mines, especially involving girl-children, as a way out of poverty (Pact International, 2013: 22). However, children engaged in this sector drop out of school and miss out on the opportunities education offers in terms of a more secure future.
Are these children victims? What pushes them into the sector? The push factors are numerous and exist on a grand scale. They are reported to include high levels of poverty among families and communities, food insecurity, family dysfunction, mining-related illnesses suffered by the family bread-winner and abuse at home including rape, physical violence, emotional and other forms of abuse (Nkenda, 2005; Childinfo Online, 2010). According to Nkenda (2005), poverty is extreme in the DRC with more than 70 percent of the population living under US$1 per day and food insecurity affects 39 percent of rural households (Childinfo Online, 2010). Many of the women and girl-children who work in the mines have been parents since they themselves were young children. Their parents may be unemployed or they may have been separated from their parents and do not receive proper care (Nkenda, 2005; Childinfo Online, 2010). Some have escaped humanitarian crises and armed conflicts and lost their homes so that they must take whatever employment they can find. In the community there may be no schools or parents are unable to pay the fees (ibid). A lack of birth certificates facilitates the use of children who have no legal identity while the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic has left its own legacy of widows or orphan-headed households (ibid). Considering the evidence, it would appear that the children are not entering the mines because they want to but because it is one choice among very few, all of which are dangerous and conducive to neither a child nor an adult’s wellbeing.
A report on the Children Voice Campaign called ‘Zero Child in the Mines’ launched on 27 September 2013 in Rubaya in the North-Kivu province has revealed that homelessness, orphanhood and sexual, physical, verbal, emotional and psychological victimhood place incredible pressure on the girl-child to engage in ASM. Their activities in the mines include carrying water from the river, sand cleaning and filtering, extracting minerals and sorting, washing and transporting ore. They also work in pubs and restaurant facilities, sell drugs and prohibited beverages or sell their bodies for sex in brothels. These activities are all driven by the girls’ need to survive.
But are there any children who work in this sector out of choice? Depending on the specificity of the location, pull factors often consist of the demand for cheap labour, the possibility of earning some cash, curiosity as to what happens in the mines, misinformation on the risks encountered and the high demand for sex by miners in this sector. There are also reports of a new practice of sex-related activities ‘on credit’ where the girl-child does sex work and is paid monthly instead of getting her cash immediately after intercourse.
The Pact International report (2013: 22) reveals that at Mitwaba, Malemba Nkulu and Manono in the province of Katanga, parents even encourage girls to engage in this to support the family. This can be due to cultural norms where, from an early age, children are taught to be part of the family household system and contribute to the family resources. This explains why girl-children are sometimes initiated into mining work by their parents and the culture of child labour is justified. The situation is exacerbated for the girl-child mother who is considered an adult merely because she has a baby. The child mothers in the country face huge challenges especially as the government and society at large have turned a blind eye towards them. Unfortunately, the result is a cycle of poverty for women and girls and a bleak future for the girls contrary to the supposed logic which justifies their involvement in these activities.
Although statistics are scarce due to poor governance and the inability of government to monitor this sector, it is reasonable to assume that the death rate of girl-children affected by the consequences indicated above can be quite high because of the absence of medical clinics and hospitals combined with the lack of skilled personnel and equipment in the remote areas where ASM is conducted. Victims of different illnesses refer to traditional doctors or even charlatans who will also try to make a living out of their so-called knowledge.
But the mining environment and practices surrounding it are not the only problem. A number of young children including girls try to escape the mines but they find themselves in equally risky situations in which they become child soldiers or sex slaves.
These practices are especially reported in North and South Kivus and in North-East Katanga, particularly around the area called the ‘death triangle’ of Manono, Mitwaba and Pweto. These areas have been controlled by armed groups for years and government forces have failed to remove them. Because of the distances between the mines and the rivers or trading centres, girl-children could also have been enlisted while moving from one place to another because of their growing expertise in raw materials.
Illegal mining trade activities have been known to feed the illegal arms trade and warlords know they can count on the weaknesses of the girl-children to make their business sustainable, playing on the draconian choice of live or die.
From a legal point of view, international and national legislation has addressed the issue of child labour in the mines. On the international level, key legal instruments are the 1989 International Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1999 ILO Convention. This instrument governs child protection around four key principles including the non-discrimination clause, the best interest principle, the right to life, survival and development and the right to participate. The second principle highlights the urgent need to stop children engaging in hazardous work. The DRC government ratified these instruments in 1990 and 2001 respectively.
At the national level, the 2002 Labour Code and the 2008 Minister of Mines’ Order on Hazardous Work aligned themselves to the international instruments mentioned above and set the age of 18 as a minimum requirement to engage in labour (Pact International, 2013: 12). Additionally, the 2006 Sexual Violence Act strengthens protection against sexual exploitation and/or harassment (Article 167 to 174) and allows no excuses when the (girl) child is under 18 years of age.
To support this provision, additional regulations from other line ministries compel the State to protect the girl-child from such dangerous activities. However, conflicting legislation and a lack of implementation and enforcement mechanisms make the legal framework ineffective. Despite the existence of legal frameworks in the DRC, the girl-child is still exploited economically, especially in the mining sector and this is happening with impunity.
Joint research by the Ministries of Planning, the Institute of Statistics and UNICEF (Childinfo Online, 2010) confirms this argument and cites early marriage, early pregnancy, lack of family planning, the school system, conflict, a lack of opportunities and social services as well as poor implementation and enforcement of the law as major problems. There is a need to address these to ensure sustainable improvements for the girls.
In an attempt to provide options for the girl-child, the national government has developed pieces of legislation as well as directives and procedures aimed at protecting and promoting her rights. For instance, a special department of the Ministry of Mining has been created to manage artisanal mining and make sure that children are not on the mining sites. Unfortunately, due to poor working situations, agents of this department have failed to monitor and bring to book those violating this provision. In some instances, ministry agents have themselves been collecting taxes from girl-children or are using them as sex pets.
The Ministry of Labour has no resources to monitor child labour in general. However, even in the Ministries of Justice, Gender and Social Affairs that have resources and mechanisms dedicated to child protection, the results are negligible.
The Children Voice Campaign (2013) has identified some good practices which have shown encouraging results. The Campaign posts banners and messages throughout the mining areas and engages community leaders and actors of change in local initiatives to stop the use of children in the mines. They also work closely with the local police to end mineral exploitation and have reduced the presence of the girl-child in the mines in the North-Kivu province (Children Voice Campaign, 2013). Extending these practices to all mineral-rich areas of the DRC will probably decrease the number of girl-children exploited at the sites.
However, protecting the rights of the girl-child in mining goes beyond narrowing down the pull factors into ASM. More should be done and the government has to fully commit to stopping the use of children in or around mining locations. This could start by genuine and goal-oriented implementation measures and enforcement apparatus of the legal instruments. Thereafter, state ministries or agencies that deal with girl-child issues should be capacitated to ensure their safety.
Mineral traceability in a responsible and transparent production and supply chain, as alluded to in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (US Securities and Exchange Commission, 2010) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Directives (OECD, 2013), in conjunction with the formal hiring of women in the mines will also have a greater impact on safeguarding the girl-child. In the author’s view, it appears to be common knowledge that the more women are integrated into a sector, the more they can influence the systems in which their rights have been ignored. Women in mining will also be in better control of the household, including child health and wellness.
Ultimately, combining the suggested solutions with indisputable and locally framed practices will offer better prospects for the current and future life of the Congolese girl-child living in mining areas.
Anny Modi s director of AFFIA Mama, a young women’s organisation in Congo
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