While mining has undoubtedly been kind to at least one woman, Gina Rinehart, the sector has an appalling – and often hidden – track record for hundreds of thousands of women in poor countries around the world.
Thankfully, the impact of mining on women is one of the issues on the agenda of this week’s international Mining for Development conference in Sydney (20 and 21 May).
Hosted by the Australian Government, the conference provides an important opportunity for governments, communities, companies and non-government organisations like Oxfam to explore ways to ensure mining undertaken in countries that are rich in natural resources, but among the poorest in the world, contributes to the economic and social development of those countries.
Mining can indeed stimulate economic growth and bring prosperity, but without a commitment to human rights, sustainability and transparency, it can also cause people to lose their land and way of life, while irreparably damaging the environment
Through Oxfam’s work over many years, it’s become clear that the mining sector is causing particular harm to women in poor countries.
A case in point is Mozambique, where mining is booming. The Mozambique mining minister speaking at the conference this week will no doubt talk about how the country is set to become one of the world’s biggest coal producers, with a large number of multinational companies exploring or extracting coal and other minerals.
But despite the good intentions of the Mozambican Government to foster equitable mining, it seems that only a limited number of people are benefiting from mining. Poverty prevails for the majority, and families regularly go hungry. This must change.
One of the keys to addressing poverty in Mozambique is to ensure the country’s poorest people are able to benefit from the rapid development of the mining sector.
Yet, with so much land marked for minerals development, communities are being forced to find new homes and new ways to make a living, which is increasing tension in Mozambique.
Mozambican women and their families have been resettled to land that typically is not suitable for growing much at all. Growing food is women’s work in Mozambique, and women are now struggling to provide food for their families. Many women have reported to Oxfam that their families are often hungry.
Women have also lost the economic opportunities they previously enjoyed from being able to sell peanuts, sorghum and other produce at local markets. Even if the land they have been moved is suitable for farming, it is often too far from markets to sell the produce.
Sex work and violence against women, often fuelled by alcohol, are increasing at alarming rates in mining areas in Mozambique – no doubt due to the presence of a large, transient male workforce. Women and girls tell us they feel less secure and increasingly vulnerable to violence and intimidation.
These are issues that are all too common around the world.
Too many companies see local communities as predominantly communities of men, and fail to appreciate that women have the same rights as men.
This can even be the case when a company employs a women’s representative on its community relations staff, provides funding to support women’s organisations or helps to establish small business opportunities for women.
Unless initiatives such as these are implemented in response to a considered and consultative process, they can be just token gestures without addressing systemic discrimination and exclusion of women.
Mining companies should be engaging women from the outset of a proposed project, not only to avoid the negative impacts of mining on women but also to identify opportunities to contribute to positive change in women’s lives.
So how can mining truly support women? To start, mining must reduce its impacts on the environment. Women are often food producers for their families and are responsible for water and firewood collection. If fields and forests are destroyed, and land and water is polluted, this affects women directly.
They may need to walk further to collect water or firewood, increasing their workload. And because women are usually responsible for the care of children, if children get sick from pollution from mining and require special care, women’s ability to engage in other activities, including making a living, is compromised.
Companies can also support women’s access to information about mining, their participation in decision-making and presence in public debates.
Another important tool is what is known as a gender impact assessment. Gender impact assessments give a voice to women’s perspectives, needs and interests, as well as to men’s, and help a company better understand its impacts on communities.
But perhaps the first step that companies can take is to recognise that the community is a community of both men and women.
Only when mining companies acknowledge this and fundamentally change the way they engage with women and support their participation in decision-making processes, can they truly contribute to sustainable and equitable development.
By Oxfam Australia Chief Executive, Dr Helen Szoke
This opinion editorial was first published in Australian Women’s Weekly on 20 May 2013