Navigating obstacles, opportunities and reforms: women’s lives and livelihoods in artisanal mining communities in eastern DRC

Bashwira Nyenyezi, Marie Rose


For more than two decades, the exploitation and trade of minerals has fuelled armed conflict and fostered a climate of insecurity that has led to the deaths of thousands of people in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (Katanga, Ituri, Maniema, North and South Kivu). This has been seen as a consequence of prolonged socioeconomic and political instability since the late 1980s and 1990s, when a civil war led to the collapse of the Zairian state and there were civil wars in neighbouring countries.

As a result of this situation, many armed groups prospered in this region. Mineral exploitation, especially of tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, formed an incentive for these groups to stay in the strategic areas of the territory (e.g. mining areas and those on the main transport routes) and to continue the fighting. The diggers and the local populations were the first victims of conflict over the control of the natural resources that directly or indirectly support the war. These people have been subjected to permanent violence and illegal taxation. Massacres, kidnappings, looting, forced labour and insecurity have been part of their everyday lives. Violence was primarily directed at those involved in the supply chain—from extraction to trading minerals outside the mining sites. In the eastern provinces of DRC, transporters, traders and diggers, as well as women and children attached to auxiliary work, such as crushing or washing the minerals, were taxed and ransomed under threats and subjected to the use of violence.

Faced with this critical situation in DRC, the international community did not remain silent. A growing movement for greater accountability of multinational companies regarding human rights and greater transparency of supply chains of minerals exploited in DRC has emerged and become a reality in the global market. From simple voluntary initiatives to international norms, these approaches are based on the same principle: due diligence applied to ‘conflict minerals’.

When conflict in DRC is discussed, two things seem to stand out systematically. First, there is the ‘resource curse’, referring to the impoverishment of local populations living in mining zones, corruption and poor governance. Second is the discussion of ‘sexual violence as a weapon of war’ against women. Little is said about the women who work at artisanal mining sites, except to draw a simplistic portrait of passive victims. The truth is that the mining community is far more complex than what has been pictured, and the high-risk mining sector is sometimes considered a source of opportunity for certain women.

Indeed, in DRC, it is estimated that the artisanal mining sector accounts for 90% of the national production and directly or indirectly furnishes the livelihoods of almost 20% of the population, including many women. Traditionally, in several local cultures in DRC, women are not allowed to enter the mines. Instead, they are assigned to secondary tasks in the processing phase of mineral exploitation: transporting, crushing, washing and reprocessing. Some women sell alcoholic beverages or other goods, and others are engaged in prostitution.

This thesis focuses on women and mining. Instead of viewing women at the mining sites as victims, the study took an actor-oriented perspective. This starts from the idea that all women at the mining sites have agency and are creating room for manoeuvre to overcome the difficult situations they face in the world of mining. However, there are large disparities in the room for manoeuvre available to different women; some women have very few options, whereas others can diversify and expand their opportunities.

Taking this approach, the study sought to answer the main research question: How do differentially positioned women navigate and negotiate the transformations of artisanal mining in the context of mining reforms in eastern DRC?

The research took place from 2013 to 2014, partly in the province of South Kivu (Nyabibwe and Kamituga) and partly in North Katanga, in the current province of Tanganyika (Kisengo and Manono). Two mining sites were chosen in each area, either because they were pilot sites for implementation of the reform initiatives (Nyabibwe and Kisengo) or because of large numbers of women working as miners (Kamituga and Manono).

This research is part of the ‘Down to earth: Governance dynamics and social change in artisanal and small-scale mining in DRC’ research programme. This programme aims to understand the negotiated outcomes of the implementation of conflict mineral policy in the eastern Congolese artisanal mining sector on three important topics: gender, livelihoods and governance. This thesis project addressed the first aspect in particular and aimed to contribute to the debate on mining reforms from a gender perspective.

Chapter 1 starts with a general introduction to the research objectives, questions and methods. It describes the process through which the studied mining sites were selected based on either the presence of iTSCi initiatives or a great number of women working in the mineral supply chain. This research has essentially relied on qualitative methods, such as interviews, focus groups, life histories and observation. This chapter also describes some of the personal experiences during the fieldwork period.

Chapter 2, which was jointly written with J. Cuvelier, D. Hilhorst and G. Van der Haar, introduces the debate around the conflict-related discourse on women’s integration in the mining sector. We examined the rise in international-level attention from international NGOs regarding international norms and the ban of ‘conflict minerals’ exploited in DRC. The resulting reforms, which were intended to improve women’s lives, were observed to also ultimately have negative side effects. The prohibition of pregnant women from the mines was generalised to all women, and access to the mining economy become a matter of negotiation for women. In the same vein, taking the particular case of Nyabibwe, women working as intermediaries between traders and diggers, although their work was an illegal practice in the government’s view (especially because of traceability issues), managed to negotiate recognition for their activities by creating their own organisation and forming political alliances. The thesis sheds light on the consequence of protectionist measures on women in mining and lays the groundwork for the following chapters, which further explore the research problem.

Chapter 3, jointly written with G. Van der Haar, introduces the world of women in the mining areas by presenting reasons that lead women to move to and install themselves in mining centres. The analysis examines push and pull factors and also considers the concept of social navigation. The findings demonstrate that there are multiple, interrelated reasons to migrate to and to install oneself in the mining areas. Push and pull factors have merged over time and resulted in complex motives. This chapter adds to the understanding of how women create new sources of revenue and seek, with varying levels of success, to mitigate situations of vulnerability.

In Chapter 4, I analyse the activities that women perform in the mining areas in more depth and describe what differentiates these women. The chapter begins with a descriptive analysis of the activities directly and indirectly related to mineral exploitation, together with a description of prostitution in the mining areas. The study identified social capital, financial assets and credit, and livelihood diversification among the factors that may differentiate these women. The findings also show that the reform process itself is a factor of differentiation, because it creates unbalanced power relations between those who are able to afford an identification card (a requirement of the formalisation process) and those who are not. The chapter concludes that, although many scholars have argued that women are working in the dire situation of perilous, exploitative and marginalised conditions, some women gain power positions and manage to save money and invest in other activities. Through their social networks, some women are able to gain access to the mining economy and improve their situation.

In Chapter 5, jointly written with J. Cuvelier, we explore how, as is the case for men, there are also elites among women. These elites can be considered ‘big women’. Their power is based on either customary or official authority. With the implementation of the reform initiatives, the importance of official authority increases, to the detriment of customary authority. Based on the case of Kisengo and, in particular, on two female elites—one based on customary and the other on official power—we analyse how elite women negotiate and maintain power. Especially interesting for this study was how both ‘big women’ took advantage of their privileged access to the public authorities to negotiate informal arrangements for a group of women working in the coltan supply chain, allowing their clients (followers) to circumvent certain restrictive regulations concerning women’s access to mining activities. These elite women managed to control access to labour opportunities for women in the local mining economy.

Chapter 6, jointly written with D. Hilhorst, explains that, following the developments of the reform initiatives, there was no longer only one discourse (conflict-related) to be taken into account when analysing the problem of women’s access to the mining economy. At international level, there is also a more inclusive discourse (gender mainstreaming). This coexists with the local ideology based on culture, in which women are marginalised and discriminated against. The civil servants who must implement the law regarding the integration of women in mining activities must face the coexistence of these different ideologies, which are sometimes contradictory. This has direct consequences for women’s access to the mining economy, although some women do create room for manoeuvre by forming alliances with civil servants.

Concluding this thesis, Chapter 7 responds to the concerns raised in the introduction. Starting from the concept of agency, and taking an actor-oriented approach, the thesis concludes with three key points about how the reform initiatives affect the positions of woman: 1) The research has demonstrated that the socio political situation in the DRC has given rise to different types of gender discourses at international level which in addition to local culture and believe have impacted on the access of women to the mineral exploitation. 2) The research discovered that women in mining have different needs and different ways of dealing with their situations: they are agents who make decisions based on either strategic opportunity or survival.3). Finally, the research demonstrated that the reform process is likely to increase particular forms of marginalisation in the mining labour regimes. They may also allow for the creation of power dynamics based on new social networks that discriminate against those who were already vulnerable. Nevertheless, the research witnesses cases of women, who have benefited from the presence of the reform initiatives to improve their conditions and create more opportunities.