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The Negative Social and Environmental Impacts of Mining on Women

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Communities relocated to make way for gold mines in Ghana struggle with loss of agricultural land, unemployment, and environmental damage. Photo: Neil Brander / Oxfam

Joanna Manu is a farmer in Ghana. She was once arrested for trespassing -- in her own field -- while planting her crops. The police who arrested her sent by a mining company called Golden Star Resources.

Farmers in the area, many of whom are women, often were told that the government had given their land to the company and there was nothing they could do -- as was Manu. But she had attended a training session with a local organization and knew her rights. "I told the court that I was there before the company came and that it had not compensated me," she said. "So the company had no right to push me off this land. I know my rights, and I knew the law would take its course... I am still farming there."

Joanna's experience with a mining company is not unique for women, but her successful stand for her rights may be rare. In many countries where Oxfam works, we see extractive industry projects with significant social, environmental and economic impacts on local communities. These impacts disproportionately affect women.

Women have the right to information about projects that will affect them. They have the right to participate in decision-making And they have a right to life and livelihood free of violence. Mining companies and governments too often undermine these rights. Unless they focus on impacts on women and improve their performance, they cannot fulfill their responsibility to respect fundamental human rights. By realizing that women are uniquely affected by mining, companies can minimize the potential negative consequences -- reducing their own risks and costs as well.

Unfortunately, we have heard mining company officials tell us that they have never even thought to "speak to the women." Some of the most significant ways that mining affects women negatively are:

Land grabs: The expropriation of land for mining projects can have the greatest impact on women. Women need land to grow food to feed their families or for subsistence farming which can be an important source of income. Lost access to land via land grabs means that women's livelihoods become more precarious, thus causing greater economic dependence on men. Importantly, it is often men who receive compensation and also have access to an income from sources women are excluded from, including working in the mines.

Employment and Income: The evidence suggests that among the jobs that extractive industries create, there are significant gender disparities in male and female access to jobs. Attempts to increase female participation in the mining sector have not always been accompanied by initiatives to make mine sites safe spaces where women can work free from sexual harassment and violence.

Water grabs and pollution: Women are typically providers of water to their families in developing countries. Mining is a major user of water and competes with communities for domestic use and subsistence agriculture. As a result, less water can be available to communities and their livestock, and what is available can be polluted by mining activities. Women's workloads are increased because obtaining clean water becomes more difficult and when household members fall sick because of polluted water, it is often women who have to nurse them back to health.

Violence Against Women: Industrial activity attracts large numbers of men as workers. This, combined with the loss of traditional livelihoods, can force some women to engage in transactional sex to earn an income - which can increase the risk for women of experiencing violence or contracting HIV/AIDS. Evidence shows that mining also brings rapid inter and intra household changes to a community that contributes to increased gender-based violence. Large migrating male populations, and the cultural and economic changes that the extractives sector can trigger, increase the rates of gender-based violence in affected communities.

Community Consultations and Decision Making: It is not uncommon for companies to enter into negotiations with men only, making women neither party to the negotiations nor beneficiaries of royalties or compensation payments. As a result, women are stripped of their traditional means of acquiring status and wealth. Research indicates that men and women often prioritize community investments differently, and frequently more sustainable development outcomes are planned where women have an equal engagement with men in setting priorities.

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Community leader Melchora Surco in front of the Tintaya Copper Mine in Espinar, Peru. Photo: Percy Ramirez/Oxfam

Some companies are attempting to address these issues - particularly in the area of employment. But more needs to be done. Oxfam will be hosting a panel on how companies can improve their practices at the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) Convention this weekend.

Mining should be done in a way the respects the environment, human rights and local communities. By listening to women's voices, supporting women's leadership in community decision-making forums and the use of gender impact assessments, mining companies can protect women's rights and benefit the communities where they operate.

Improving the social standing of women is essential to change and development in any country. By giving more women like Joanna Manu the tools to take an active and equitable role in their society, it becomes possible to effect a positive change across families, communities and entire cultures.

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