Small-scale mining begin two careers. One is common to girls in poor communities everywhere – domestic work and caring for their families. The other is work in and around mines, and together these two careers take up to 14 hours of the girl’s day, according to a 2007 study by the International Labour Organization, “Out of Sight: Girls in Mining.”
Mining is prevalent in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, where minerals are the main export.
In Peru, 13% of gold exports comes from small scale mining worth $120 million a year. 65,000 children work in mining activities in these countries, according to the Child Labor Coalition, an American NGO.
While the materials are usually mined underground by men, women and children provide support at ground level. They haul stones, tools, food and up to 25 litres of water (25 kilograms) three to four times a day, according to the ILO study.
Women and children also process the mined substances, which poses health risks – exposure to mercury and other chemicals, and physical injury. The communities are often lawless, with high levels of alcoholism, prostitution, drugs and crime.
Girls in mining communities might seek another form of employment – jobs in bars, restaurants, retail communications, most of which can result in sexual abuse and exploitation. Business owners hire women with the understanding that they will receive sexual favours in exchange. Unwanted pregnancies and STD transmission levels are high. However, there are a few beneﬁts for girls and women working in the mines, according to “Out of Sight.” ILO researchers found the girls they interviewed to be bright, outgoing and assertive.
With a degree of economic independence, the girls contribute ﬁnancially to the family and are given a say in how it is run. They learn valuable survival skills working in the mines, but they also develop a tendency to be violent.
The elimination of child labour in mines requires changes in the mining industry itself, and implies the replacement of small family mining initiatives with larger-scale, mechanized enterprises. With the introduction of new technology, many of the dangerous jobs girls do will be eliminated.