Why keeping women away from Congo’s mines -- which are rife with exploitation and sexual violence -- could do more harm than good.
BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo — Bembeleza Mungo Akonkwa, 41, cradles her infant son and hunches slightly. "I have so much back pain," she says, sitting in the backroom of a hotel restaurant in Congo's South Kivu province. "I have pain in my uterus. So much pain. I'm unable to walk or to carry big things."
It's worse when she menstruates; her periods last for two weeks and leave her barely able to stand. There's no money for a doctor.
"I don't know what's wrong," she says. "It just hurts."
Akonkwa's old job, hauling minerals and supplies up and down the hills of the Marok mine in the eastern Congo, left her physically debilitated. The pain also means she can no longer easily work. That's a big problem: With 11 children and no husband (he ran away), the $2 a day she earned from carrying 100 lbs. packs kept her family afloat. The infant, she says, is almost two -- but he's so malnourished and small that he looks like he's closer to nine months old.
A few years ago, Akonkwa had a particularly unproductive day hauling supplies, and she was on her way home when a miner spotted her and offered her $2 for sex. Unsure of how she was going to feed her children that night, she agreed.
"And that's where I got pregnant with this child I have in front of me," she says.
Akonkwa is one of hundreds of thousands of women who work in and around Congo's mines, sometimes extracting minerals directly but more often cleaning, hauling, panning, and processing materials or engaging in secondary economic activities like cooking or selling food to miners, almost always under tremendously exploitative conditions. These same mines have helped sustain eastern Congo's 20-year-long conflict -- they're a source of political power and economic support for whoever controls them. For smaller-scale artisanal mines, that control is usually asserted by one of the many militia groups (even though large, multinational corporations technically own the title to many of them) who operate with impunity.
Although violence against and exploitation of civilians is rife in Congo's conflict -- most notoriously, the rape of women -- it is particularly atrocious around mining sites. In addition to being treated as packhorses, women who need access to the mining sites to sell food or other goods have to negotiate permission from site owners, who routinely demand sex as part of the cost of entry. Men who work in and around the mines also frequently rape women and girls. Child marriage, which is uncommon throughout most of Congo, happens with regularity in mining areas.
If you talk to Washington policymakers or Congo's increasing number of celebrity advocates, the solution to the endemic violence that women like Akonkwa face is regulation of conflict minerals, including gold and the "3Ts" (tin, tantalum, and tungsten) that are used in consumer electronics like laptops and smartphones. Groups such as the Enough Project, a human rights organization focused on Sudan and Congo, emphasize that non-transparent mineral supply chains in Congo mean that "American consumers have no way to ensure that their purchases are not financing armed groups that regularly commit atrocities, including mass rape." They push for corporate due diligence. "There is good news," the Enough Project's Raise Hope for Congo website states. "Because we as electronics consumers are tied so directly to the problem, we can actually play a role in ending the violence."
That message has also reached Congress. The Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2010, requires any company that does business in the United States or trades on its stock exchanges to disclose the origins of the conflict minerals they use; if the company sources those minerals from Congo, it has to submit an annual due diligence report to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
There's no question that the Congolese mineral trade abets sexual violence and other human rights violations, and that the Congolese people would greatly benefit from regulation and transparency of mining (as well justice for survivors of rape and other crimes). But the political narrative about women and mines is a narrow and sometimes manipulative one: Stories of abuse draw attention to a pressing problem, but there is little subsequent discussion of how to empower women as economic and political actors in the development of Congo's mining sector.
"Some advocacy groups have largely used the sexual violence phenomena as a hook to bring people into the larger conflict mineral issue," says Joanne Lebert, director of the Great Lakes Program for Partnership for Africa Canada. "They're drawing on emotive responses to something absolutely horrific, but there is little follow through. Everything having to do with gender outside of sexual violence is just dropped."
If there is follow-through, at a local level, it is often guided by long-standing and limited assumptions about the sort of work women should be doing. "I think that the fight should be to enable or to empower women in what they are able to do," says Justin Kabanga, the national coordinator of Congo's Centre d'Assistance Médico-Psychosociale ("Center for Medical-Psychosocial Assistance," or CAMPS) who also works closely with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Women would be better off doing the traditional female labor of small-scale farming, he says, so his organization focuses on helping women to leave the mines by purchasing and cultivating farmland.
"The idea that women should be out of the mine sites is a widespread and widely supported view in the DRC," Lebert explains.
Ensuring that gender issues aren't so divorced from discussions about how to improve Congo's mines is critical. These mines will continue to be drivers of the country's economy, even after conflict, and Congolese women deserve a fair stake in their country's future.
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The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that Congo has some $26 trillion worth of untapped mineral resources, with some of the world's greatest reserves of gold, diamonds, copper -- and the aforementioned 3Ts. Very little of the economic benefits currently culled from the mines trickles down to the Congolese population, 80 percent of whom live on less than $2 per day; most of it goes to militias, international corporations, and the government in Kinshasa. The country remains one of the five poorest in the world, and women in particular bear the brunt of Congo's poverty.
International regulations, including provisions in the Dodd-Frank Act and the OECD's Due Diligence Guidance, attempt to clean up mineral supply chains and pressure demand-side companies into purchasing minerals through transparent processes. These regulations are important initial steps toward stability and violence reduction; cleaning up supply chains will certainly help to curtail bribery and some forms of labor exploitation. But this is only one piece of the puzzle. For mining reform to be truly beneficial for the Congolese population, gender dynamics in mining communities must be addressed -- dynamics that many lawmakers and other international actors do not understand well.
Women make up 30 to 50 percent of the mining sector's work force, concentrated in lower-status roles: illegal trading, carrying minerals downhill for washing, dragging tools and goods for miners' use, panning for gold, sex work, laundering clothes, and selling food. In some cases, women aren't even allowed to take on even these exhausting roles: Donatien Nakalonge, a community leader from Walungu, South Kivu, says that some local leaders have banned women from mining sites entirely because of superstitions about women bringing bad luck and concerns about distracting a mostly male work force. (He agreed that women are better off on traditional farms.) The government has also limited women's access to mines. "In response to the great attention about sexual violence, Congo passed a law stating that no pregnant women could be in the mines at all, and no women could be in the mines after a certain hour," Lebert says. "The local interpretation of that has often been that there should be no women in the mine site. Some artisanal claim holders now have rules."
Some women, however, do participate in extractive work alongside men, and they appear to fare better than women banned from mines. When Lebert's organization conducted a gender analysis of one artisanal gold mine where the claim-holder barred women from the site and compared it to another where women were engaged in the extraction of artisanal gold, they found that the women living around the exclusionary mine were more vulnerable than the group of women actually working in the other mine. The women who were excluded had to depend on their male partners for access to cash. And in order to perform secondary economic activities, like cooking or selling goods, they had to get special permission from the claim holders -- which could include sexual favors. Other women banned from mining sites have to negotiate with the Congolese military or militia groups for access.
"It amplified their vulnerabilities," Lebert says. "They didn't have access to cash, and they had to negotiate their way into certain areas in order to have access to any form of entrepreneurship."
Unfortunately, the international actors engaged in development work, advocacy, and legal reform around mining and minerals in Congo do not always grasp these realities. When asked whether international actors are identifying economic opportunities for women, empowering women financially, or bringing women to the table in efforts to clean up the supply chain, Lebert says "the answer would be no, no and no."
"There are opportunities for a meaningful inclusion of gender with the multiple audits being carried out, with the formation of monitoring committees, and with other governance tools in development," Lebert added. "Women should be enabled to participate more fully. And men, too, should be able to bring a gender lens to governance work."
Doing that requires evaluating women's roles and building their capacity to work safely in a sector with enormous growth potential. Practically, that means targeting women for education and training programs so that, for example, they could gain the skills to work as auditors along a supply chain, which, thanks to Dodd-Frank, is already seeing an enormous demand for trained inspectors. Auditors could also be taught to flag exploitation and to promote integration of women into various parts of the supply chain. Better access to credit would allow women to start small businesses outside of the mines. And women working in and around mines could (and should) also be party to conversations around how to make the mines more humane places.
Of course, a push for gender equality also means focusing on providing more basic necessities, from education to family planning. It also means bringing in gender specialists at various levels of development and across sectors to influence policies. More broadly, too, it requires a shift of perspective: Advocates and decision-makers from Washington to Kinshasa often see men as the economic actors in mining, and women as victims of violence, in particular rape. That has to change, to reflect the real nuances of what is happening on the ground.
"There may be well intentioned programs, laws, and policies, but none of it is being evaluated, certainly not from a gender perspective," Lebert says. "Their impacts are unclear, and they are often based on anecdotal and incorrect information.... We need to really be able to understand the gender and power dynamics and where women are in the supply chain and what renders them vulnerable and what creates opportunities."
"It's valuable to draw attention to the pervasive and horrific exploitation of women in the Great Lakes region," Lebert added. "But what we risk doing is not actually understanding that this is a larger issue of insecurity -- pervasive, systematic insecurity."
Minerals, of course, are not the only potential source of wealth in Congo. Another is land, and farming in Congo is traditionally women's work. But the problem with insisting that women "stay on the farm" -- beyond the troubling assumptions about gender roles -- is that there are reasons that many women are forced or seek to decamp to mines in the first place.
Some are displaced by war and crisis (as are Congolese men). Others are abandoned by their husbands and ostracized in their communities after being raped, requiring them to leave their family farms. What's more, farmers mostly exist at a subsistence level, eking out just enough to survive -- not make a serious profit. Making the move to farming as a business involves many obstacles: For instance, grain farmers are unlikely to have consistent electricity, so there is no way to run a mill regularly. That means their grains are sent across the border to be milled, then imported back into the country and sold at a higher price. But even if electricity were available, women would need credit to buy the seeds and tools that would allow them to grow enough crops to mill and sell. And here, once again, gender biases come into play.
"There's a lot that can be done in terms of livelihoods and areas where women are already strong and already working, but where they have absolutely no support," says Adrienne Stork, a project advisor working with the UNEP's Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch. "But nothing ever gets off the ground in terms of people being able to improve the way they work and what they do, and improving opportunities to market what they produce."
In other words, ensuring Congolese women's economic futures means better understanding and developing sectors like farming, where women have traditionally worked, while also accounting for women's interests in the country's lucrative mines.
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Bembeleza Mungo Akonkwa says she would like to start a small business selling petrol. But to do that, she needs start-up capital or credit she does not have and cannot easily get. These days, she barely has enough money to get by day to day.
She tries to stay away from the mines, yet sometimes, when there is no food left, she drags herself back to Marok to carry packs up and down the mountain again. She gave up on trying to send her children to school a long time ago; she can't afford the fees. Now, she is focused purely on survival.
"I don't see a future for my children," she says. "Thinking about it gives me so much pain. I try not to, but I think about it all night."
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