They start by “helping” at perhaps just 4 or 5 years old and by the time they reach their teens, often put in a full day. Child labour around small-scale mines varies from tasks such as hand-picking or crushing rocks or transporting materials, to the most dangerous of jobs such as digging, tunnelling and diving into muddy wells. Inside the mines, children face the same risks of cave-ins, rock-falls and asphyxiation as adults. But because their bodies and judgmental abilities are still developing, injuries are more likely to occur among children. According to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) 2011 report on “Children in Hazardous Work”, mining is by far the most dangerous sector for children in terms of fatal injuries. Research studies suggest that for every 100,000 fulltime child workers (aged 5-17 years) in mining, there are 32 fatalities (compared to 17 and 15 in the agriculture and construction industries respectively).
Even disregarding fatal accidents and deaths, the work takes a heavy toll on a child’s health. Child miners frequently suffer from musculoskeletal pain, exhaustion and respiratory diseases. And the use of hazardous chemicals in mining, such as mercury, carries a high risk of poisoning. This causes severe damage to the nervous system. Neurological tests have revealed that children involved in the mining sector need twice as long to complete cognitive and reflex texts. Other symptoms of mercury poisoning include tremors, mood swings, headaches and muscle weakness. High levels can eventually cause kidney and respiratory failure and death. Children are also exposed to other metals and non-metals which present a risk to their health.
But it isn’t only the mining work itself which threatens children. Mining often occurs in remote areas where support structures such as schools and social services are not strong. The ‘freewheeling’ and ‘macho’ lifestyle around the mines exposes children to alcohol abuse, gambling and prostitution. A survey conducted by the Tanzania Media Women’s Association (2004) showed that in the Mirerani mining zone, 85 out of 130 girls interviewed in the area were engaged in sex work, because of the high demand for young girls from the miners. A recent article in IRIN has highlighted the same kind of demand among the gold miners of western Kenya. In the district of Nyatike, around 100 girls have been lured to spend their days around the gold mines, providing drinks and prostitution services.
As the ILO points out, mining is not widespread, but concentrated in particular places. And the children involved in the sector – fewer than 1 million – can be easily identified and helped. In Kenya, Hope for Africa, a local non-governmental agency has understood this and started a programme to persuade girls away from the mines and back into education. By giving girls from extremely poor families small items such as soap, food, sanitary towels and pocket money – the kind of things they receive from working at the mines - more than 300 have returned to school. With levels of HIV/AIDS running at 15% in the Nyanza province (nearly double the national average), the organisers are also helping to protect the girls’ long-term health. Hope for Africa are also talking to the miners, to try to change attitudes among the men. If every small-scale mining region in Africa had such a local NGO, determined efforts could eliminate the involvement of children in this dangerous and lawless sector.