The Impact of Mining on Women

17 Oct 2013

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The Marikana massacre most certainly turned the spotlight on the women in mining communities by bringing into sharp focus the challenges facing the widows of the slain mineworkers.

Fazila Farouk of SACSIS talks to Samantha Hargreaves of WoMin about the broader impact of mining on women in mining communities and learns about land grabs, water grabs and the health impacts of environmental degradation and water pollution, which create an additional burden for the women behind the mineworkers. Women in mining communities, both within sender communities and recipient communities, are often also engaged in unpaid labour that subsidises the profits of big mining companies. The negative impacts of mining well outweigh any social responsibility investments made by mining corporations, contends Hargreaves.

Transcript of Interview

FAZILA FAROUK: Welcome to the South African Civil Society Information Service, I’m Fazila Farouk in Johannesburg.

Ever since the senseless massacre of the striking mineworkers in Marikana last year people have much greater awareness of the struggles of mineworkers.

But behind the mineworkers is another group of people. The wives, the mothers, the daughters, the sisters -- these are the women behind the mineworkers. These are the women that live in mining communities.

The Marikana massacre most certainly turned the spotlight on the women in mining communities by bringing into sharp focus the widows of the slain mineworkers. Tragically, the Marikana widows are still waiting for justice as the Farlam Commission of Inquiry is making painfully slow progress. As we sit here today, we are no closer to the truth about what happened on that tragic day when the mineworkers lost their lives. Meanwhile the lives of their widows are in limbo. Not only have they lost their loved ones but they have also lost their families’ breadwinners.

Today we are talking about the impact of mining on women.

And we’re going to have the discussion with Samantha Hargreaves. She is the coordinator of WoMIN. WoMIN is a regional platform that unifies African women in the fight against resource extraction that destroys land, ecosystems and livelihoods.

Welcome to SACSIS Samantha.

SAMANTHA HARGREAVES: Thank you very much for having me.

FAZILA FAROUK: Samantha, WoMIN was launched a few days ago at the Constitutional Hill, the Women’s Jail, as I understand.

SAMANTHA HARGREAVES: Yes that’s correct.

FAZILA FAROUK: Your organisation is looking specifically at the impact of mining on women. Can you tell us what is the impact of mining on women?


So WoMIN as you’ve explained is a regional programme looking at women gender in the extractive sector. The impacts of mining on women in the region are diverse.

The first major impact that our studies have shown and that our work with communities on the ground has revealed is that with extractives often comes large-scale land loss. So “land grabs” is a great feature of the extractives sector. And because women are the major producers of food in Sub-Saharan Africa -- In fact, 60-80% of food that is consumed within rural households is grown by women -- the impact of land grabs is greatest on women because they are the major producers of food on the continent.

It’s very complicated by the fact that women’s land rights are often very tenuous in rural areas as well, because they often live under communal tenure systems, which over centuries from colonization through post-colonization where there’s been a failure to really reform and strengthen these systems, means that women often do not have a voice in these communities because they’re not seen as rights holders.

The land is generally vested in a man whether it’s husband, brother, father and so women’s rights of access to land in communal tenure systems is through a man. It’s mediated through a man.

So, when there are decisions about whether to proceed with extractives projects, women’s voices are generally quite silent in those communities. The challenge more generally for communities that are confronting extractive industries is that often you will have a traditional leader or a traditional council that will act for the community and they will make decisions to proceed with the extractives project without consulting the community as a whole. So, that’s a more general problem for all rural communities.

FAZILA FAROUK: And I would imagine that it’s the women in those communities that don’t have a voice when these decisions are made.

SAMANTHA HARGREAVES: Yes, because women marry into traditional communities and aren’t necessarily seen as members or membership of a unit comes through their husbands. So women generally do not participate in decision-making. So that’s the food, the land grabs and food production impact of extractives is one major area of impact for women.

The second that is linked is “water grabs”.

Mining, second to industrial agriculture, is the greatest consumer of water. And what happens is you have industries, and in this case mining, that are then competing for domestic water users - against domestic water users - and against subsistence and small-scale farmers.

And so what you see is, you see grabbing of water for the industrial scale mining leaving communities with very little water for agricultural production or with polluted water supplies, which they then cannot use for agricultural production either.

Coming to the area of polluted water, this is a critical area of impact for women and in fact on the solidarity visits we had as part of this WoMIN meeting last week, we visited Mpumalanga, which is the centre of coal mining in South Africa. Well I think Limpopo is going to soon be competing with Mpumalanga. But there you can see the great impacts of acid mine drainage to the point that communities in most of these areas can no longer drink the water. So they’re relying on water that is being brought in from outside or from local church or religious groups that are providing safe water supplies.

Very poor communities are actually having to buy water supplies now as well because often water is not sufficient.  And this is terrible impacts on women because of the division of labour within households, which see women as primarily responsible for the provisioning of safe water supplies for their families. So, it means when water supplies are no longer safe it’s women that then have to struggle with limited resources to purchase or find the water often walking great distances to find safe water.

And when children or households members fall ill, which they do from polluted water supplies it’s women then that have to nurse their household members back to health.

The third or fourth major area of impact is around women’s bodies. And this is quite an under researched and poorly understood area.

We obviously know about significant levels of violence against women in the region and in South Africa, in particular. But in these extractive areas, which attract large numbers of men as workers, both for the primary and secondary linked industries, you have a significant influx of men. You have women losing resources they rely on for livelihoods leaving women often with little choice but to sell their bodies. And so, in the extractive industries -- in the industries and surrounding them amongst the communities, you have women who are transacting sex to make a living.

FAZILA FAROUK: Samantha tell me about something you mentioned before this interview when we spoke before. You talked about unpaid labour, the unpaid labour of women - can you elaborate a little bit on that?

SAMANTHA HARGREAVES: I think that this is a critical question. In fact, in a lot of the work that is being done on the extractive industries, this is barely mentioned.

The unpaid labour impacts take many different forms. So when you have men migrating from rural communities to the mines, as Wolpe theorised in the 70s, they’re leaving behind a rural family -- and in fact the mining companies have historically always factored into account the labour of principally women in those rural communities that continue to produce food in subsistence agriculture systems and the mining companies considered this as an input to the reproduction of the family and the wage labourer, the mineworker.

What is also happening as a more significant feature since the end of Apartheid in South Africa is that men have, have moved out of compounds into mining communities. Usually informal settlements around the mines and they get a living out wage which is about R1,800 or US$180. And that is supposed to, bizarrely, accommodate all of their reproduction.

So it’s suppose to house them, provide water, roads, the general services that a person would require to reproduce themselves. And so built into this…living wage…I mean into this subsidy, living out allowance, is an assumption that people in that community - and this would be women’s labour - would be deployed to reproduce these mineworkers and their families.

And so it’s women in these informal settlements that are under very difficult circumstances reproducing the mineworker and his dependents. And that’s harvesting water, dealing with sick children because there’s no sanitation. There’s inadequate health services, so it forces women to take care of members of their family. There’s no roads -- this creates additional work because of mud within homes or on clothing.

So, these are some of examples in which women’s unpaid labour subsidises the mining corporation’s profits.

The third area is around illness that arises from the mining industries and this is both in terms of the male mineworkers who, after decades of work underground often contract diseases, well TB, HIV/AIDS which is very closely and intimately linked to the mining industry. And then diseases of the lungs such as asbestosis as it applies to the asbestos mining industry and silicosis around the gold mining. These men become very ill, they basically suffocate to death and so they would return home.

Often the mining companies would just repatriate the workers to die at home so that the costs of them caring for these sick workers would not fall to the mining corporation. And so it has been women in rural communities that even to this day are subsidising the mining companies and stepping in to fill a significant breach or gap on the part of the state that’s not providing basic services in rural communities to then take care of these sick workers.

FAZILA FAROUK: Samantha, tell me about some of the mining communities that you visited. You talked about the coal mining community that you visited in Mpumalanga, am I right? But were there other communities that you visited and what did you see?

SAMANTHA HARGREAVES: We also spent time in Marikana on that trip, that second trip to the North West. And in Marikana, very soon after the massacre, women in Marikana started organising -- basically it’s the women from Nkaneng or Wonderkop.

But they started organising around the effects of the massacre on women, providing a source of support to women, but also addressing some of the underlying problems that had led to the mineworkers strike. And these are questions related to social reproduction and the living conditions under which the majority of the people stay there. They are horrifying. No services, no housing, water supplies that run out at midday and these have great impacts on women in that community. So, they’ve been organising since then and they launched their organisation some eight months ago. It’s called Sikhala Sonke, basically “we cry together”.

And so, we visited them and spent time with them, understanding the massacre through the eyes of women.

FAZILA FAROUK: I’d like to shift the focus away from South Africa if we can. Still maintaining a focus on South African companies - mining companies - but I’d like to get a sense of what’s happening in other parts of the region. What is the impact of the mining companies, South African mining companies, in other parts of Southern Africa?

SAMANTHA HARGREAVES: So the WoMIN meeting drew together women from all over the region. We had sixteen countries represented: West Africa, Central Africa, East and Southern Africa. The majority of the participants were from Southern Africa.

And the impacts that I’ve described are generally ones common across the region. So from the environmental, social impacts, the unpaid labour question, violence against women. But the effects are very similar.

And in fact if your hear stories around impacts of extractives industries on communities and women specifically - you literally - you could blot out the name of the area and the country and the stories would read exactly the same whether they’re from South Africa, the DRC, Nigeria or Columbia.

So, these are general trends and that’s why it’s really important that we are unifying our struggles regionally and internationally because the struggles are very much the same ones.

In terms of South African mining capital, what we did discuss was, we talked about unifying our efforts into a campaign against particular corporations and cooperating with others around a more general campaign.

FAZILA FAROUK: And which are those corporations?

SAMANTHA HARGREAVES: So we identified, it must have been about a hundred corporations on the list.

But the ones that were singled out - and there’s one South African or historically South African mining corporation amongst them - and that’s AngloGold. Barrick Gold, which is a Canadian mining corporation, was singled out as particularly problematic. And there were a number: Shell, Chevron, Texaco in terms of the oil industry, Newmont in terms of mining.

So, though AngloGold came up as a particular focus for action…AngloGold regionally is present in Ghana and Mali as well as Guinea. So those are the countries that it operates in.

Human Rights Watch has done quite a lot of research in Ghana around the impact of AngloGold’s activities there. Similarly, an organisation called WACAM, which is doing excellent work on extractives, in extractives industries in Ghana, is also mobilising around AngloGold and its impacts.

They’re very similar to what I’ve described already: acid mine drainage, terrible environmental pollution, repression of communities that are resisting the activities of mining corporations. And so I’m very excited about the possibility of us cooperating to target a South African, historically South African mining corporation, in a regional campaign.

FAZILA FAROUK: Tell me what does the WoMIN programme want to see happen in terms of change that will bring about some positive transformation in these women’s lives?

SAMANTHA HARGREAVES: So when we started…a few months ago when we were thinking about how we could name WoMIN, identify it, we talked about African women united against destructive resource extraction. And I think this is a major thrust of our work going forward.

It’s not to say that no resource extraction should occur at all. But given the deep environmental and social impacts of the extractives sectors, we do need to be thinking about the model of extractives. And so this was something we spent a great deal of time talking about -- was the model of extractivism and locating it in a wider system of capitalism. And so you have a rapacious very violent, destructive form of extractivism that characterises this particular phase of capitalism and that is across the world today.

There’s sort of…there were different view, viewpoints around extractivism. Certainly the one viewpoint from many of the participants was no to resource extraction, all together. And so this reflects a common position globally, which is, keep the coal in the hole or the oil in the soil.

However, there were many people in the room that felt that what we needed to do was actually work to make the extractives model…work to transform the model itself. And that would be to strength policy and law to provide protections, better regulate the mining industries, to mitigate some of the worse impacts and ensure the voice of communities and women in particular around decision making with regards to the mines.

I think these positions come together in that even those that felt the model itself could be transformed were of the viewpoint that there needs to be significant transformation. And that when there were indications that an extractors project would carry to greater social and environmental impact, these extractor’s projects should not proceed.

And so the first major, sort of focus of our work going forward, then, would be to strength the voice of communities and particular women within these communities to give input to decision making around these projects. To lift up their voices to say “no” when the extractors projects will be to detrimental to their livelihoods and lives.

The second sort of major thrust is a lot of communities are poorly informed, and women in particular, around the impacts of extractive sectors. So the mining corporations come to communities with many promises. They come with promises of development, local development, jobs.

Women have few opportunities to work on the mines. And in fact the impacts, the negative impacts, well outweigh any investments by the mining corporation. Their corporate social responsibility programs are very small.

And so, what we want to really do through WoMIN is build a unified platform of women from mining affected communities to support exchanges, information and movement building on the continent. That’s the second major thrust of our work going forward.

Third is, giving that we do need to…in the long term we might want to see much more limited extraction, smaller scale projects, definitely locating extractives in local and regional development and not just driven by extractives for export, which is what’s happening at the moment in terms of this model. But what we do want to see is, we’ll be lobbying sub-regional and regional institutions to strengthen policy and law to ensure that women can be involved in decision making, that women’s rights under communal tenure are strengthened so that they actually are seen as members of these communities and can give input around these projects.

What we would also want to see is, with current trends of a lot of our governments really trying to capture more of the benefits of mining, that where this does occur that there is significant local benefit and that that goes towards supporting development that women prioritise, that supports their labour and supports their development needs.

FAZILA FAROUK: Samantha Hargreaves, thank you very much for joining us at SACSIS.

SAMANTHA HARGREAVES: Great. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.

FAZILA FAROUK: And thank you to our viewers and listeners for joining us at SACSIS. And remember, if you want more social justice news and analysis, you can get that at

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