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Impacts of COVID-19 on Women in ASM

Salt miners at Lake Katwe in Uganda. For illustration purposes only.
Photo by Olivia Lyster

Article originally posted on Levin Sources website. Cross-posted with permission

By Olivia Lyster & Josephine Singo

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has seen growing concerns over the disproportionate negative economic and social impacts identified on women and girls around the world. From a rise in gender-based domestic violence to decreased access to essential health services, rises in unpaid work and the increased burden (and risk) of caring for the sick, women and girls have paid a heavy toll. This blog contributes to this ongoing discussion by providing insights on the gendered impacts of the pandemic on artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) communities. We draw on our recent data collection in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Uganda and the DRC as part of the Delve COVID-19 Impact Reporting initiative.

Below, we give an overview of some of the study’s principle findings. They are not, however, without limitations.

Firstly, we recognise that gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it also requires engagement with and understanding of the male perspective. That said, our focus on women reflects the historic vulnerabilities they have faced and continue to face in the ASM sector.

Secondly, this blog mainly uses data collected in Uganda and Zimbabwe, with limited inputs from the DRC and Mozambique. The reason for this is in itself a product of the marginalisation of women in ASM sector research. Whilst data was also collected in Mozambique and the DRC, research limitations, including cultural sensitivities and gendered networks, limited the number of women respondents who could be contacted by phone. Whilst others have overcome these challenges by conducting remote research with a feminist lens, this was not the principle objective of our study and as such we relied on researcher discretion for the collection of gender-sensitive data.

Women have been disproportionately affected by job losses

Our findings showed that women were often the first to be laid off as government restrictions triggered the downsizing of the ASM workforce in the early days of the pandemic. This was identified by participants across all four countries surveyed as the primary way in which women and men have been affected differently by COVID-19 in the ASM sector. There are a number of reasons for this trend.

Firstly, study participants, like many women around the world, often found themselves with the double-duty of childcare and work as schools were closed. This was a particular challenge for female-headed households, diminishing women’s ability to continue working and with reported knock-on effects on household income and women’s economic independence.

Secondly, women in ASM often work in what are seen as ‘peripheral’ roles such as crushing, washing, cooking and other manual, labour-intensive work. As such, in the face of ASM workforce restrictions across the four target countries, it was women’s roles that were reportedly deemed unnecessary and eliminated. This trend is not new to COVID-19 – studies have shown that women’s role in ASM declines as formalisation and mechanisation increase. Respondents in Zimbabwe and Uganda also reported women being laid off unpaid with the promise of retroactive payments. In a sector where many people live hand to mouth and do not have sufficient cashflow to save, payment delays such as these can be catastrophic for household income and wellbeing.

Even when women’s roles are not formally eliminated, their peripheral roles are vulnerable to market disadvantages. In Gulu, Uganda, where COVID-19 restraints have flattened the local construction sector, our data found that women’s small-scale production of stone aggregate (i.e. in 20 litre containers) ceased to be competitive in the absence of small, individual buyers versus the truckloads generally produced by men for larger-scale projects. Similarly, in Zimbabwe, a border closure with South Africa led to a fall in the availability of mercury, which disproportionately affected ASM gold processing in which women play a crucial role. The effective elimination of women’s work can occur also as an indirect result of COVID-19 policy-making. In Zimbabwe, for example, whilst ASM was classified as ‘essential’ and exempted from the nationwide travel restrictions, service providers to the sector were not initially included in this exemption. This not only affected production (ASMs could not obtain the tools, equipment and food they needed to work), but also disproportionately affected women as primary service providers.

The ASM sector remains important as a source of income to women

That said, the ASM sector has remained an important source of income for women and therefore a desirable livelihood. Studies show that despite earning less than their male counterparts, women benefit economically and socially from ASM, which provides them with essential household income and, in many cases, increased social status. These benefits, whilst greatly reduced during the pandemic, appear to have remained important for ASM women, especially as lockdown restrictions begin to ease.

Data collected in the early stages of the study showed that both women and men in ASM were forced to look for alternative sources of income to compensate for job losses in the ASM sector. Respondents reported that, in general, those with access to land who were able to grow food for themselves and their households were faring better than those who did not.

However, as the data collection went on, more respondents were returning to ASM sites where possible, balancing mining with existing household responsibilities. This was true even of sectors where both production and demand remain low. In northern Uganda, for example, a growing number of women returned to ASM stone aggregate sites over time, despite a continued lack of demand for the commodity due to a stagnant local construction sector.

Similarly, Zimbabwe has seen more women moving into the informal ASM sector due to shortages in income and lack of alternative livelihood sources. Unregistered informal miners in Zimbabwe are not included in the exemption of ASM from travel restrictions. The journey to informal ASM sites is therefore high risk, with women experiencing increased vulnerability. The fact that informal ASM is a viable choice for so many women shows the importance of ASM income to their livelihoods.

Additional vulnerabilities experienced by women

Food insecurity

Food insecurity is a growing concern in ASM communities. Our results show a significant increase in reported food insecurity compared with before COVID-19 for respondents in Uganda and Zimbabwe, and to a lesser extent in Mozambique. In Uganda and Zimbabwe, this trend worsened over time, with nearly twice as many respondents reporting that they skipped meals as the pandemic went on, reaching highs of 78% and 80% respectively. Tellingly, reports of skipping meals were significantly higher from women than from men, with the disparity between the two increasing over time. Sustained reductions in household income were cited as the primary cause of food insecurity, followed by food price inflation. In Uganda in particular, respondents with access to land for farming reported lower levels of food insecurity than those without.

Rises in food insecurity, and its disproportionate impacts on women, may not solely be due to COVID-19. Weak harvests in northern Uganda, and economic insecurity and a devaluation of local currency in Zimbabwe, as well as persistent droughts in recent years, are all contributory factors. What is clear, however, is that rising food price inflation will be having a disproportionate impact on women in ASM communities, who tend to be primarily responsible for household food expenditure. Combined with widespread closure of schools – resulting in a reported increase in food expenditure for households by respondents – and lower incomes, the strain on household resources could be catastrophic for many of ASM’s most vulnerable families.

Physical insecurity

Insecurity at ASM sites was not reported as an important issue in Uganda and Mozambique. Respondents in Zimbabwe, however, reported an increase in theft of ASM equipment and gold ore, driven in part by gold being one of the few currently reliable sources of foreign currency. Respondents reported that gendered stereotypes of women as ‘weaker’ and therefore easier to steal from put them at particular risk.

An increase in gender-based violence (GBV) is also putting women at risk. Respondents in Uganda and Zimbabwe reported that sustained reductions in household income were affecting both men and women, resulting in increased stress and frustration and manifesting itself in rising levels of domestic violence against women. Rising levels of GBV have been predicted around the world, and require a cross-cutting policy response that takes into account women in informal sectors such as ASM.

Women’s health

COVID-19 and related social restrictions have also had a negative effect on women’s health. Respondents reported a reduction in women’s ability to travel to local markets, due both to government-imposed movement restrictions and reductions in household income. This increased the difficulty for many women of obtaining family planning tablets, sanitary items and essential medicines such as ARVs. This is reportedly felt most acutely by those who, because of family and social constraints, cannot openly procure these items, and by households who relied on door-to-door provision of these items by community-health services, no longer operating because of COVID-19. Furthermore, in Zimbabwe, essential health items are often only available to buy in USD. With many women no longer working in ASM, they have lost their access to foreign currency and the access to essential items it brings in local markets.

Policy and programming implications

This blog offers a brief overview of some of the ways in which negative direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19 are disproportionately experienced by women in ASM communities. We must learn from them. In relation to gender and ASM, decision-makers must ensure high-quality, sensitive and context-specific policy and programming that allows for the empowerment of marginalised groups.

Whilst this final section cannot provide an exhaustive list of gender-sensitive policy options for post-COVID recovery in the ASM sector, we offer below a number of recognised best-practice principles that flow from the findings of this study and that must be considered for a more equitable post-COVID society.

‘Gender-neutral’ is often ‘gender-blind’. Policy that does not intentionally take into account the particular challenges faced by women runs the risk of exacerbating and entrenching existing gender inequalities. With limited time and resources to react to the pandemic, much COVID-19 emergency policy has failed to take gender impacts into account, resulting in unintentional outcomes that discriminate against and disadvantage women. A study respondent in Zimbabwe, for example, noted that a lockdown was enacted with limited notice to community groups, disadvantaging poorer women who are responsible for household expenditure, but did not have the cashflow to stockpile essential items such as food and medication, including family planning tablets. Similarly, the classification of the ASM sector as an essential service in Zimbabwe played a key role in maintaining this critical income for many of the country’s poorest. However, the initial exclusion of service providers from this exemption meant that the ability to continue earning an income was split largely along gender lines, disadvantaging the women who normally played a critical role in service provision to the sector.

Decision-making must be evidence-based. Our previous COVID-19 analysis has emphasised the need for good quality data in ASM programming, and gender policy and programming is no exception to this. Decision-makers must be informed as to the specific needs of a population – including specific, intersectional challenges faced by vulnerable groups – if they are to design effective response planning. Gender-disaggregated data collection is a vital first step. The need for Gender Impact Assessments ahead of mining sector reform has already been raised, and remains critical in the post-COVID era.

Women in ASM communities are well-placed to play key roles in post-COVID recovery. Development research has long drawn links between gender equality, in particular women’s empowerment, and food security. Women have an equally important role to play in post-COVID recovery. Our data highlights how women have already been playing critical local roles in COVID-19 response, for example in the local production of cloth masks reportedly used by most ASM actors across our four target countries. Policy-makers must look for ways to support and strengthen these existing responses by identifying and addressing women’s needs in each context.

In conclusion, decision-making that is gender sensitive and evidence based will ensure that existing inequalities and vulnerabilities affecting women and other marginalised groups are not exacerbated. In addition, the role already played by women in ASM communities in responding to the crisis should be harnessed into meaningful participation in decision-making, creating opportunities for the rebuilding of a more equitable post-COVID ASM sector.

About Josephine Singo

Josephine Singo is a global health development professional with an MSc in Public Health from University of London School of Tropical Medicine and an MA in Language and Communication from the University of Zimbabwe. She is currently enrolled for a PhD on International Health with the University of Munich Lugwig-Maximillians München (LMU), Germany. Her research interests are occupational safety and health management in the informal sector with a focus on artisanal and small-scale mining in Uganda and Zimbabwe. She also has undertaken professional training in mining safety and health from several different institutions. She has worked in Zimbabwe, Mongolia and Uganda with experience as a researcher, safety and health consultant, university lecturer and counsellor in areas of HIV & AIDS. Some of her research includes mining safety and health exposure and perceptions amongst ASM communities, and health impacts of mercury use and exposure on women and children. Josephine has worked with Levin Sources on data collection and analysis of the impacts of COVID-19 in Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Article originally posted on Levin Sources website. Cross-posted with permission

Article Mozambique, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo Gold, Development Minerals, Stone Aggregate Political, Formalization, Governance, Economic, Access to Markets, Social, Employment, Gender, Health and Safety, Labor and Working Conditions, Livelihoods, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, COVID-19

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