Congolese women entered the mining sector in the late 90s and ever since they have been fighting discrimination, superstition and outdated customs, while they successfully bring more and more women into the workforce.
On a June morning this year in the city of Goma in Congo's North Kivu province, a small crowd of women gather around the well to fill water buckets they carry on their heads, while children run cheerfully, giving each other a giddying chase.
Around them is a landscape of dark volcanic soil, with clusters of houses and a local market which acts as a main junction, where fresh fruits and vegetables and radio transmitters are sold.
Tucked away from the market bustle and loud music coming from the radio sets, a gated villa with a strong metal door stands in a stark contrast.
"This way," a female voice blares from behind the door. As we step in, the dark volcanic soil typical of North Kivu's capital gives way to a grand marvelous villa.
That voice belongs to Angelique Nyirasafari, both a mineral trader and a member of COOPERAMMA, the first mining cooperative to be established in North Kivu, in the territory of Masisi rich in both cassiterite (tin) and coltan.
“In Congo, there are three types of traders,” she explains. “Those who pay the diggers to extract minerals and then sell them to big companies; those who buy minerals from the diggers; and those who own the pit, pay the diggers and sell minerals to the companies. Most business people only fit into either of the latter two categories. But I am all three.”
Nyirasafari was born the second of eight children, from the second of her father’s three wives. He himself was an important farmer in the area. “My father had the economic means to send us all to school but, due to our culture, my sisters decided to just get married and have babies,” she recalls. “I was the exception.”
Both Nyirasafari and her husband used to work within the humanitarian sector, but in 2015 she quit and with the money she had made she started buying minerals from small traders and selling them in and around Goma. Before long, Nyirasafari understood that the same sector that had been marked for centuries by hegemonic masculinity was the easiest way to climb the social and economic ladder.
Although her own involvement is fairly recent, women first started flowing into the artisanal mining sector around 1983, when former president Mobutu liberalised mining activities, and once again in 1996, when the national mining company SOMINKI closed due to the first Congolese war and thousands of men were suddenly made jobless. Entire families were deprived of their sole source of income, so it fell to women to roll up their sleeves and make ends meet.
Since she entered the mining sector, Nyirasafari has fought to improve the standard of living for other women working alongside her. Her decision to take action stemmed from the first Women in Mining National Conference held in Bukavu, South Kivu's capital, in 2015, a meeting supported by the World Bank and the Congolese government. The conference set the foundations for what, two years later, became known as the National Women in Mining Network (RENAFEM) and also spurred Nyirasafari to create the Dynamics for Women in the Mining Sector (FEDM) association.
“In DRC, being a woman is the greatest challenge,” Nyirasafari says. “Associations [such as FEDM] are very important because, whenever one of its members is subjected to any sort of abuse, it gives them legal representation. Women alone seldom dare to denounce what happened and, even when they do, unless they are ready to pay large sums of money, they are hardly able to file a complaint.”
Discrimination against women manifests through outdated customs and superstitions. For instance, even if the recently amended mining code – which was signed into law in March 2018 – states that only pregnant women can’t enter underground mining pits, in most of the mining sites all women are banned.
“According to our culture, whenever women enter in contact with minerals, the latter disappear,” explains Veronique Miyengo, a researcher at RIO-ECC, the Organizational Innovation Network of the Church of Christ in Congo.
“Our association also teaches women that they can live without men,” Nyirasafari says as her phone rings insistently. “And today there are many women who started as ordinary miners and, by saving money, have built their own economic independence.”
Since 2010, the number of cooperatives formed to regulate the extraction and sale of minerals has greatly increased in North Kivu. But the idea of organising around female-only associations has developed slowly when compared with other eastern provinces, especially South Kivu. The female movement here dates back to the end of the colonial period and while its beating heart is in Bukavu, there are case studies scattered across the province.
A good example is Kamituga, one of the most important gold mining sites located 180 km from the capital. It is the third largest city in South Kivu but consists of just a handful of mountain tracks. The stalls on the main road sell street food alongside basic tools for the backbone of the region’s economy – the extraction, treatment and sale of gold.
The Association to Fight Against the Exploitation of Women and Children in the Mining Sector (ALEFEM), was founded here by Francoise Bulambo and Emilienne Intongwa in 2006. Before the DRC’s two main wars, Kamituga was a quiet place, where only SOMINKI workers and their families lived. When the first conflict broke out, this balance was broken as thousands of outsiders stormed into the town. “As we were fleeing the city, an armed group kidnapped my husband. I still don’t know what happened to him,” Intongwa says. “When I returned to Kamituga, I had nothing. My main activity until then had been farming, but I couldn’t go back to the fields because they were controlled by the militia. I started everything over.”
She negotiated a loan from a trader to buy a mining pit and, in exchange, handed out her house documents. “If you find minerals, the trader will be your only buyer. If you don’t, you’ll either sort your debt or he’ll seize your property,” Intongwa explains. “In my case, I found minerals, but faced a bigger problem. It was the first time men saw a woman owning a pit and they thought I was a witch. In order to save my life, I had to bribe the local chiefs to protect me.” Back then, being a witch meant being buried alive.
Likewise, working in the mining site proved to be anything but easy. “The biggest challenge was working with so many men,” she says. “At first, diggers would steal from me and I had to pay extra money to find someone who could check on them.” Further problems arose when men and women started working side by side. “Many women miners fell pregnant after a few months,” Intongwa says. “Hence, I decided to create a network (ALEFEM) where I could tackle their reproductive rights.”
Today Intongwa heads a mixed team of women and men in Kamituga’s southern site. With men digging underground and women carrying out other smaller tasks, her microcosm reflects the wider reality in the giant anthill that is Kamituga. “Depending on the level of reform implementation, each site has more or less intermediaries,” says Marie Rose Bashwira Nyenyezi, an assistant professor at the University of Bukavu. “In Kamituga, the number is huge because gold traceability in Congo doesn't exist.”
When the stones leave the pit, women transport them to the next group who pound and wash them. The leftovers are then mixed with sand and filtered again. “These workers are all women, but you won’t ever find them mentioned in the mining codes,” says Bashwira.
As positive as more opportunities for women in the artisanal mining sector sound, the majority of female miners are still victims of psychological and physical abuses. In another part of Kamituga, there are a series of huts from which a hammering sound echoes non-stop. Inside, bony and exhausted women sit on the ground pounding quartz stones with heavy sticks. These women are the mama twangaises, the most discriminated category in the mining pyramid.
“I wake up every day at six and I walk for two hours to come here,” says Neema Muyengo. “Every day, the only thing I do is pound stones. I have to look after my family but, sometimes, I don’t even get paid and working so hard becomes useless.” Often, stone crushers must negotiate their access to the mining sites by performing sexual acts but, even in those cases, they only get paid if they find gold among the crushed quartz. On top of this, quartz is toxic and its fumes can cause tuberculosis.
Where the regulations are better implemented by the local communities, such as in Walungu, located mid-way between Bukavu and Kamituga, women have a stronger awareness of their role within the mining sector, as well as of their rights at work. Moreover, most of the women that engage daily in the extraction chain pay to join one of the existing associations. “Before we would use the money only to buy food,” explains Fideline Mubukyo, the head of ASYAK, an umbrella group that runs all female-led mining associations in Walungu. “Later on, we formed associations and even women who didn’t have much to save started putting aside few francs every week. At the end, we could use this money for our children’s education and better working tools.”
From afar, Mubukyo looks like any other female miner, but her mastery in taking the floor makes her unusual. Even when she tackles a sensitive topic such as transactional sex, women sit still and listen. “Until women get better salaries, sex will be a mining activity like any other,” she states. “What we must do is ensure that they protect themselves.”
In one of the countries that, worldwide, hate women the most, the biggest mistake people can make is to look at women miners only as vulnerable victims. “Even prostitutes believe that to grow within the mining sector, you need to have an objective,” professor Bashwira points out.
By boosting their self-determination, women-only associations are contributing to precisely that.