Gold mining in Africa has a bad rap — particularly when it comes to women. Depictions of the trade often focus on poverty, environmental destruction, prostitution and harassment. But in the gold mining belt of Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries, the victimization lens does great injustice to the hundreds of women mining alongside men.
Women working in the mines would be the first to say that the work is brutal and uncertain. When I spoke with some of them during a recent visit to Mali, they were clear about the dangers inherent in digging and moving piles of rocks in the hopes of finding a few grams of gold.
But the money they can make gives women financial autonomy and power that would be unimaginable if they remained in their villages to work on their husbands’ farms. Despite its flaws, low-tech artisanal mining empowers them in a way little else does.
It’s not simply that they need money and have few sources of it. It is the relational quality of the money they earn that matters. It is not their father’s or their husband’s; it is theirs own to keep, and that’s important in a place where women are still subordinate in the family and village units where they live.
Women make up around half the workforce in Mali’s artisanal gold mines, which is a similar participation rate to other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In and around the mines of Kenieba, located in Mali’s southwestern corner, I encountered women from the neighboring countries of Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Guinea, where women’s land and labor rights are comparable to those of Mali.