The untold story of female miners

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Women getting ready for mining. (Photos by S. Ngendahimana)

When her husband passed away, Laurence Mukamparirwa was left with six children and no job or skills for survival. Life came to a standstill as she pondered on how she would deal with a future that looked very uncertain.

However, her hope was rekindled after getting a job in the mining sector.

Six years ago, Mukamparirwa joined the male-dominated field and she says she doesn’t regret the path she took. Being a miner saved her from the claws of death.

“It is sixteen years since my husband passed away, but life has not been easy. I was lucky I got an opportunity to work in the mines otherwise I don’t know how I would have made it this far,” she says.

Mukamparirwa wakes up early in the morning to make her journey to the mines. All day long she digs deep into the earth extracting minerals.

She says the challenges on the job are not many and that apart from the extra hard work and determination that is required, mining is just like any other job.

“We manage as women, I can’t say we are as strong as our male counterparts but we manage to do what they do,” she says.

She says she enjoys what she does and hopes to continue with it in the future. Mukamparirwa believes that her ability to survive as a widow stems from the government’s effort to empower women; through this, she discovered her abilities and the courage to shape her destiny.

“The government has gone on to empower women and we have gained confidence, because here I am working and supporting my family. My kids are done with primary school and others have joined high school. I can pay for their health insurance, I have constructed three houses and also manage to save money for the future,” she says.

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Kamugwera with some of the minerals they extract.

In the hills of Mageragera, Nyarugenge District, women miners are giving men a run for their money. I found them busy at work deep inside the caves. As some go on to extract minerals from the earth, others cut and blast at the rock face.

24-year-old Verene Ushizimpumu is part of the mining team, she joined the field four years ago after dropping out of school.

At first she hesitated joining because she thought mining was meant for men.

“I thought it was meant for men, a field that required a lot of energy, but then I thought to myself that instead of sitting home, why not try it out. Besides, we cannot leave all the jobs for men. I joined and I haven’t seen any extreme difficulties, apart from the heaviness of the drilling machine which requires a lot of energy, most activities in mining fare well with women,” Ushizimpumu says.

She too has managed to achieve a lot from the trade, she takes care of her parents, started animal husbandry and bought a piece of land.

She advises young girls to be hard working and not dwell too much on their literacy level because going by where the world is now, this should not be all that matters.

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One of the female miners during the interview.

Overcoming gender stereotypes

Vestine Kamugwera, the founder and the manager of Generation Mining Company, says women have proved to be go-getters and that if they continue with that spirit, nothing will stop them from achieving what they want.

Having been in the mining sector herself for over 20 years now, Kamugwera believes mining is a fine occupation.

She says that though the job requires energy, both physically and mentally, women can nevertheless strive as miners.

“Women can be drivers, farmers and even run businesses, if they can do all this, they can make it in the mining field as well. Being a female miner is just like any other job; we can serve as examples for the rest who still think it’s something for men. Many of us have achieved a lot of things in this field; we get paid and support our families,” Kamugwera says.

Challenges faced in the mining sector

Aline Providence Nkundibiza, the chairperson of Rwanda Women In/And Mining Organisation, says women still do less paying activities in the mining sector like washing, panning and transportation which prevent them from acquiring more skills for other good paying jobs in the mining chain like digging.

She also points out that because of their low level of education; the number of women working in administration posts is low.

“The women are judged by the community as people who ‘lack good manners’ because the community’s perception is that mining is for men. This is a cultural mindset,” Nkundibiza says.

She notes that the structure of the mines is disadvantageous to women.

“Artisanal and small scale mining faces a challenge of limited infrastructure like good tunnels, there are no changing rooms for women and childcare places at mining sites, and many accidents happen but pregnant women are not allowed to work in the mines,” Nkundibiza says.

What the law says

The Labour Law on the other hand is not fully enforced in the mining sector, according to Nkundibiza.

She explains that miners in small companies and cooperatives which are less organised do not get health insurance from the employer, social contributions in RSSB, maternity leave is not accorded, and many other advantages are not provided to miners.

The payment system also discriminates against women in some mines. Payment is based on production while it is possible to spend a lot of time working but there’s no production.

Women also face the challenge of accessing credit which could allow them to become subcontractors and make more money.

A recent study that was done by Canada’s Carleton University in Rwanda, DR Congo, and Uganda shows that women miners still face a challenge in terms of payment structure.They still earn less compared to their male counterparts.

The report indicates that in Rwanda, the two regions, that is the Southern and Northern provinces where the research was carried out, women are largely limited or excluded altogether from mining activities with higher earning potential, including digging and sluicing.

In the Southern Province, men diggers and ore transporters earn $124.67 (about Rwf100, 000 and $137.87 (about Rwf117, 000) respectively, while women working in ore transportation and in panning earn $89.96 (about Rwf75, 000) and $101.56 (about Rwf85, 000), on average respectively. 

In the Northern Province, men diggers and panners earn $70.16 (about Rwf 59, 000) and $69.89 (Rwf 58,000) for those in panning while women panners and washers earn $48.90 (Rwf40, 000) and $46.78 (Rwf39, 000).

 Challenges

Kamugwera says that the biggest challenge is the unpredictability of the industry.

“The mining sector is so unpredictable, the mineral production is in most cases scarce, yet when it comes in abundance the prices fall, Kamugwera says.

She points out the other challenge being the limited access to loans from financial institutions, which is also linked to the unpredictability of the industry.

“They don’t know what the land holds in terms of minerals; they cannot be sure of the output, hence getting scared of giving us loans in mining,” Kamugwera says.

To overcome these challenges, Nkundibiza says that the mining sector needs to be formalised to meet the Labour Law requirements. It also needs to be modernised in terms of infrastructure and lastly training, peer learning and other capacity building initiatives for women in mining that will help increase their number.

“There is also need to raise awareness in mining communities to show that mining is not just for men,” Nkundibiza says.

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Mukundahirwa

I used to think that the mining sector is for men but I gathered confidence and joined it anyway. I hope to continue with this job because it’s not as hard as I thought. It’s been two years now but I have managed to buy myself three cows.Though I am a primary school dropout I can earn a living. And If I have managed to achieve this in two years, I believe that after five years I will even have achieved more. Young women who are looking for employment should be confident and hardworking as this is the only way to a have a bright future.They should not fear such jobs.

Florence Mukundahirwa

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Kubwimana

I have been into mining for seven years now; it’s a nice job and I get to meet different people. Our female counterparts are as hard working as we are and we are proud of them. They can do whatever it is that we do and this is why I encourage more women to come and join and not be afraid of the challenges.

Jean Claude Kubwimana

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15131999163
 Ntezimana

I joined this field nine years ago but I have come to learn that mining is a very profitable venture. The good thing is that anyone can do this as long as you are determined; this is why I advise women not to be scared but instead strive to be self-reliant.Such jobs give you the skills to be confident and hardworking, and our female counterparts have managed to achieve all this.

Abiatari Ntezimana

editorial@newtimes.co.rw