Girls Digging for Precious Stones in the Midst of Poverty

Sudha was twelve when she begun working as a stone crusher in a mining settlement in Nepal a few years ago. Forced to work to supplement her family’s farming income, she spent hours everyday crushing the stone by hand, susceptible to dust inhalation and wrist injuries from the repetitive motion and impact. With no protective gear, she had nothing to shield her eyes from the sharp pieces of rock that flew everywhere.  Sudha dreamed of going to school, but that hope has vanished. “There is no alternative” to the rock crushing, she says. A million children are involved in small-scale traditional mining in countries throughout the world. The number of girls engaged in mining is steadily increasing, yet it is often unrecognized that they often do the same hazardous work and suffer the same dangers as their male counterparts.

A recent International Labour Organization (ILO) study conducted in Ghana, Niger, Peru and Tanzania, however, found that young girls are more subject to exploitation. Susan Gunn, a child labour specialist at the ILO, claims that it is becoming more common to see them working in the interior of the mine, where “gender does not permit any favours.” The most common job for girls is the mining of gemstones and other precious stones. Wet panning requires girls to crouch in the same position for hours, filtering the water for precious stones.  As a result, they suffer from spinal injuries, posture misalignment, sun exposure and water diseases.  Inside the mines, girls dig with small tools and shovels and then carry out their heavy loads either on their heads or backs. The interior of a mine is a dangerous place, subject to cave-ins.

In gold mining the girls are typically older, 15 and over. They crush the ore and mix it with mercury to separate the gold. Working without gloves or masks, the girls are at risk of mercury exposure. Their skin becomes irritated and they risk extensive damage to their nervous systems if the vapours are inhaled. In Niger, every girl interviewed said she had at least one of the following symptoms: arm pains, headaches, dizziness, breathing difficulties through the night, irritations and burns on the skin. These girls see mining as a death trap, but they have no way out. The most common affect on children working in mining is the respiratory problems they develop.


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