At least 20,000 children, some as young as six years-old are working under harsh and dangerous conditions in the west African country, extracting gold destined for the global market, it said. Campaign group, Human and the international community to act to end child labour in these artisanal mines.
These child workers, from one of the world’s poorest countries are exposed to toxic mercury used to process the gold, and some have had long-term spinal injuries, researchers found. They also risk accidents in unstable pits as well as physical and sexual abuse from adults.
Most children work with their parents to boost the tiny amount of cash adult miners get from selling their gold to traders. And other children travel to the mines on their own and end up being ripped off or abused by relatives or other adults. Some girls are forced into sex work for survival. "It is really difficult. It can make you sick," Lansana, 13, told the rights group. Lansana, complained of headaches, back, shoulder and muscle pain. "I prefer to have free time than to work (at the mine). But my parents say I have to work to buy the study material for school."
Twenty-one of the 33 child workers researchers spoke to said they had breathing difficulties or recurring pain in their head, back, arms or joints. "I work at the mining site. I look after the other children and I carry minerals. It is hard," said Mamadou, about 6 years old. "I work with mercury. You mix it in a cup and put it on the fire." Using mercury to separate gold from ore is another major threat to the child miners, because the chemical element damages the brain, speech and kidneys as well as leading to blindness. "The most serious risk is inhaling the vapour from the mercury," said the rights group’s Juliane Kippenberg, who wrote the report. "Children do regularly touch the mercury and the health system is not addressing the problem at all."
In June, Mali's government brought in a plan to stamp out child labour, but Human Rights Watch said it hasn’t done enough and the mines are not regularly inspected and government officials could not be contacted. Children work in artisanal gold mines worldwide especially in west Africa’s gold belt which spans Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal. And Mali is Africa’s third biggest gold producer. “Gold is glamorous,” said Kippenburg. “Child Labour and mercury poisoning are not and should not be part of the process of gold mining.”