How Corporate Power Threatens Women’s Rights


Luwowo coltan mine, North Kivu, DRC. Photograph by MONUSCO.

by Valérie Bah

On a research trip to the Kamituga gold mine in her home province of South Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), activist Marie-Rose Shakalili noticed something that’s often minimised in stories about mining in her country: that “women work disproportionately hard, breaking up stones, transporting and sifting them, grinding them into powder.”

Shakalili described a “brutality of gendered roles in mining operations” in the DRC, with women finding that their labour is undervalued at each step. “For a basin of crushed rocks, a woman might earn the equivalent of $3 a day, but since it’s backbreaking work, they often feel the need to bring [their] children… to assist them,” she added.

“Women who are active in the mining sector lead very difficult lives,” Shakalili continued. After finding an almost total lack of research and statistics on their conditions, she travelled to Kamituga to speak directly with women working in some of the region’s many artisanal and small-scale mine sites – where people mine informally using rudimentary tools and sell (mostly) unprocessed products to traders and companies.

2016 report from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), released just a few months before Shakalili’s research, is one of the few other studies of women’s experiences in the DRC’s informal mining sector.

Based on a survey conducted in Katanga province, it described alarming trends including labour and sexual exploitation on mining sites and security forces (state and private) appearing to protect corporate interests to the detriment of local populations.

At one artisanal mining site known as “Huit Cent,” for example, the report said that armed security forces have exacted “taxes” from workers and prevented them from organising.

The DRC mining industry is a prime example of how unbalanced corporate power threatens the rights of women, whose voices and experiences are too often marginalised or ignored altogether. Cases like these are why feminist activists have joined the international mobilisation for a new binding treaty to regulate the impacts of transnational corporations.

Artisanal miners produce 90% of the mining sector’s revenues in the DRC, according to the World Bank. They constitute between 500,000 and 2 million informal workers at the bottom of supply chains. They perform the hard manual labour that feeds into the industrial operations of international mining corporations, which process and sell the mined products abroad.

International mining corporations may have vast economic resources, political influence, legal armour, and media connections to shape public narratives about their activities. Members of local, often rural, communities may not benefit sufficiently from their operations and, with far fewer resources, often struggle to access justice when they suffer harm.

They may not be able to afford lawyers, for example, or they may be unable to travel long distances to courts, or even understand such proceedings and relevant documents, if they speak a local dialect or indigenous language.

The underrepresentation of women in local government exacerbates the ways in which their voices are sidelined, Shakalili adds.

“The mining sector is overstacked in favour of men,” said Shakalili, who told me about meetings that she observed, as part of her research, between mining company representatives and government officials where she found women and their concerns were routinely absent.

The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), where I work, is part of the Treaty Alliance coalition which believes that new international laws are needed to regulate the impacts of transnational corporations. Our existing legal tools are not sufficient.

In 2002, a new Mining Code was introduced in the DRC to regulate this sector. But it was drafted under advice from the IMF and World Bank which have, according to the civil society watchdog Gender Action, privileged the growth of the mining sector while disregarding its gender impacts.

According to a 2015 briefing from NGO Global Witness, existing frameworks like the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the OECD’s Due Diligence Guidance, have done little to ensure that companies operating in the DRC source conflict-free minerals, pay their fair share of taxes, or protect workers at the “bottom” of supply chains.

Though the Global Witness briefing does not discuss the demographics of artisanal miners, feminist research like that from WILPF highlights the specific vulnerability faced by women in the industry, who face gendered “violations of all kinds” – including barriers to job promotion beyond hard labour; lower pay than men; and sexual violence at work.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) has warned that conflict-affected areas are a “‘grey zone’ in terms of business and human rights” despite “heightened risks for gross human rights violations, of which companies may be perpetrators or accomplices.”

International humanitarian and human rights laws have fallen short of being able to “efficiently prevent, address, mitigate or account for business-related human rights abuses in conflict-affected areas,” hence the need for new laws.

Discussions on a proposed Binding Treaty on Transnational Corporations have been underway at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva since 2014. Negotiations over a draft treaty text are now expected to begin later this year.

Organisations including FIDH see this proposed treaty and the negotiations process as an opportunity to clarify human rights obligations for states and companies, including where businesses may play a role in “exacerbating or driving” conflicts.

At AWID, my colleague Inna Michaeli explains: “War and conflict are not just profitable for the widest range of industries, they can in fact be caused and driven by economic and corporate interests.”

Michaeli has been working with other activists to lend a feminist perspective and raise awareness on the possibilities that a binding treaty offers women human rights defenders.

Industries from mining to construction to banking and telecommunications “can all profit from conflicts and thus maintain a political interest in their continuation,” she said. “Given the vast economic and political power corporations hold today, this really is about human lives.”

In the DRC, Shakalili is also thinking about local structures that could help to minimise harm on mining sites. “To facilitate the survival of women,” she said, “we are talking about cooperatives so that women, and the children that they support, are represented in terms of earning and ownership [in the sector].”

Shakalili is one of 48 women human rights defenders who spoke about extractive industries impacts on their communities, and women in particular, in a 2017 report published by AWID and the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRDIC).

This report highlights a chilling statistic from a UN special rapporteur: out of 156 killings of women human rights defenders in 2015, 45% were of environmental, land and indigenous rights activists. Mining was one of the most lethal sectors, along with hydroelectric projects, agribusiness, and logging activities.

Many of the women cited in this report also criticised extractive models of development, demanding sustainable alternatives that would respect ecosystems, minimise economic disparities, and enable communities to thrive.

Piece originally published at Open DemocracyCreative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

About the Author:

Valérie Bah is a storyteller passionate about literature, photography, and videography. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Al Jazeera English, Saraba Magazine, and This is Africa. She identifies as queer, womanist, and African feminist (in no particular order). She works at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID).