Golden crumbs for women in mining

Women in the gold mining community of Penhalonga are being forced to survive on the crumbs that fall from the table, while the men feast on the golden cake. WADZANAI CHIMHEPO reports.

As I walked up the winding roads of Penhalonga, my heart was bubbling with excitement – finally a chance to spend a day in a gold mine. At the time, I was a graduate student conducting studies on women’s participation in mining and spending a day underground was a necessary part of my research project, which sought to explore how gender influences women’s access to, and control of, natural resources.

During the course of the study, which focused specifically on gold mining in Penhalonga, it became very apparent that culture plays a large role in determining women’s levels of involvement in this industry. It also became very clear that an enormous tension exists between women’s legal rights and the impediments imposed by culture on their ability to access and control mineral resources.

Before I could even set foot on the claim I went to visit, more than a dozen men started shouting and telling me not to move a step closer to the mine –to go back. At first I thought that they were just teasing me, especially as two men were approaching from the mine.

Gold would disappear

Much to my chagrin, the two men had actually come to tell me that I should turn around and leave. I tried to negotiate with them to be allowed in. But my efforts in were in vain, as the men made it clear in no uncertain terms that they would not allow me onto the claim because my presence would make the gold disappear.

In the local Shona language they said, “Mukatosvika padhuze sembo rinokava, tinoziv sei pamwe mutori kumwedzi.” (If you go any closer, the gold will disappear, especially if you are menstruating, which we cannot tell.)

You can imagine how I felt – I had just been told that the essence of my womanhood was a curse. I had experienced – first hand – how a particular set of cultural beliefs barred women’s direct access to mining.

In another incident I went to interview Mai Tariro, a woman whose husband is a small-scale gold miner. I asked her to show me the gold purification process and the tools that her husband uses for his job. I still remember her bewildered expression as she told me was not possible for women to touch the tools or to get too close to the gold mill – even though the tools were right under her roof! And the reason she gave for this bizarre rule was the same taboo – the curse of the menstrual cycle!

Unclean spirits

In Shona culture, there is a taboo that prohibits women from having contact with men while they are menstruating, generally because they are considered to be possessed by unclean spirits at that time. Therefore they cannot work with men for a number of days each month. This makes women less attractive employees in the mining sector as this perceived ‘uncleanliness’ is also thought to affect the mineral yield. The fact that no one can tell when a woman is menstruating, except the woman herself, means that people in the community prefer women to stay away from the mines at all times – and even refrain from touching any of the tools.

An interview with the only two female claim holders in that community, Mai Rumbi and Mai Ta, revealed that they are forced to depend on men to gain physical access to their gold claims. So even owning a claim does not give women permission to actually go to the mines. And even though they can legally own mines, they are culturally barred from physically managing the day-to-day activities at their mines. Instead, they have to employ, and rely on, male supervisors to do that – meaning that mining is not a viable option for women.

Not viable

As Mai Rumbi said, “It is very difficult to make a profit from mining. Things happen in your absence and all you get at the end of the day are reports that there is not much gold in the mine. When, in actual fact they would have sold the gold or the ore and shared the money among themselves.”

My study revealed that women are also prejudiced when trying to acquire gold claims. The women I interviewed lamented the fact that their applications for claims are not given serious consideration when compared to applications from men. Mr Molai, a council employee who I interviewed during the study, corroborated this assertion and acknowledged that women faced challenges with service providers in the gold mining industry. He cited the example of the mine pegger who gives priority to claims belonging to men while women remain on the waiting list. This prejudice may explain why in a community of around 7,000 people, only two women own gold claims – alongside hundreds of claims owned by men (Tripmondo, 2012).

I also learned that apart from taking advantage of the women owners’ physical absence from their mining sites, male employees also harbour perceptions that their female bosses do not know anything about mining – attitudes born out of cultural perceptions of women as being inferior to men. Mai Ta and Mai Rumbi both revealed that their male employees do not accept instructions from them. Furthermore, men in the area generally believe that it is inferior to work for a woman so they often quit female-owned claims to go and work on male-owned claims so that female-owned claims are often understaffed, which reduces their turnover and profits. “I have to constantly recruit miners to work in the mine because these boys are always running away,” said Mai Ta. “On recruitment they sound sincere [because of desperation] but once they are in the mountains they leave and join neighbouring claims owned by men.”

Cake crumbs

Women have therefore resorted to indirect gold mining activities. These are undertakings that are not directly linked to gold production but provide some access to gold revenue – such as selling food, clothes and other goods and entertaining the miners.

Many feminist scholars have noted – and challenged – the culture of patriarchy that positions women on the economic periphery. This is certainly the case in Penhalonga, where women have been relegated to low income activities that are culturally permissible, since their direct participation in gold mining is hindered by beliefs embedded in their society as well as by patriarchal nuances that shape the perceptions of the people in the community and how they conduct their lives.

Other cultural aspects, such as female domesticity and notions of what is and is not appropriate behaviour, have contributed to the marginalisation of women in this sector. Most women seem to have accepted this status quo and appear content with their husbands’ providing for them.

Many of the women also pointed out that they were prohibited from mining, even from alluvial mining in the river, for traditional and cultural reasons, including the belief that the gold would disappear and the notion that women should not work with or among men. As one elderly woman told me, “according to the ethos and values of the community, it is extreme and immoral for a female to be seen among the men in the river.” Furthermore, as I observed, men engaged in alluvial mining make it difficult for women to join them. These men were working without clothes, which would make women very uncomfortable.

No clothes

Finally, kinship also plays a major role in ensuring that women are left scrabbling for crumbs. In Penhalonga, kinship only counts male relations, which strips women of their rights to participate as equal citizens. Women are traditionally thought of as not having any rights to own property and resources – forcing them to rely on men. This results in women’s bargaining power being eroded and so they succumb to their subordinate roles. Indeed, most Penhalonga women are not aware that they can apply directly for mining licences, believing that they have to be represented by men.

Gender based exclusion of women can only be eliminated by firstly demystifying key cultural pillars that uphold current gender roles.

To ensure women’s full participation in the gold mining industry in Penhalonga, fundamental shifts have to be made to enable a more equitable relationship between women and men in an attempt to neutralize the gender roles that are hindering women’s progression. Gender mainstreaming and sensitivity in relation to day-to-day issues at the local level are also critical, as is genuinely involving and consulting women.

To fully remove the cultural barriers that women face in their attempt to access and control resources, there is a need to educate both women and men about gender issues and about how they impact on access to resources. Imparting knowledge will enlighten women and encourage them to challenge the status quo and reverse the cultural imbalances that exist between them and men.

This includes exposing and neutralising cultural beliefs that characterize women as being possessed by bad spirits that remove the gold from the mines. If these changes are made, then women will finally be able to sit around the table and claim their fair share of the golden cake. – BUWA! Feminism and Culture

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Post published in: Gender Equality
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