It took me a while to realize what I was seeing. At the first artisanal mining site we visited on our first day in the gold mining area of Migori County, the women that we saw were carrying out one of the last steps in the gold mining process. They were sluicing the powder from the ground-up rocks with water in order to drain out any remaining gold so that it could be amalgamated through treatment with mercury.
From a distance I could see that there was a group of about six women doing this. Some were older, while others appeared young. By the time we came closer the women had moved around; they were hard at work. We came close to two older women. As I stood there watching I noticed that one of them was blind in one eye. Her eye looked milky, covered over with a white film through which she surely could not see. Back in the car, one of my colleagues said she thought that it was a case of untreated cataracts.
We asked the man who had brought us to the site about the women and their earnings. He said that at the end of each day the women were able to get some money to pay for their expenses. He made it sound like an advantageous situation for them. Yet as I watched them work I couldn’t help thinking that it looked like a lot of work for something that might yield very little return. There seemed to be a lot of risk involved in the process – and yet, the women wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t worth their while overall.

A typical sight in rural communities where processing ore is a key source of income for women. Photo by Sarah Katz-Lavigne
A typical sight in rural communities where processing ore is a key source of income for women. Photo by Sarah Katz-Lavigne

I reiterated to myself the determination that all the researchers on our team have: once we’ve chosen the mine site where we’ll be working, we’ll make sure that we get the stories of the women working in ASM (artisanal mining) directly from them rather than from a man speaking on their behalf, which was the case this whole first day of exploratory observation. In doing this type of research I have found that women can be more difficult to talk to than men because they tend to be more reserved and are less likely to approach you up front. That makes it all the more important not to spend your time only with those who are the most vocal and the easiest to talk to, for example because they can speak fluent English with you and you don’t need someone to interpret.
After seeing several smaller mines we drove quite a bit further, down a rough road, with our companion for the day. Finally, we made it to the big artisanal mine we had been looking for – one of two possible sites for the rest of the three-year project. There, we saw three women who were standing in the sun, washing ore powder at three sluice boxes neatly lined up one next to the other. They told us that they were washing the ore for the man who owned the equipment. He was sitting there watching them work. The women would get 100 KSh for each basin that they processed in this way; 100 KSh is the equivalent of 1 US dollar.
It is only then that it dawned on me: what I was seeing was the economic subordination of women, something that I have long known about but only understood in a real way at that precise moment.
From our brief research to date, it seemed that women were engaged in the least lucrative work in artisanal and small-scale gold mining. It is not that men are not exposed to danger or that they do not take risks in the pits – mining shafts in Kenya can be extremely dangerous work environments – nor is it the case that men do not engage in so-called “women’s activities” such as crushing rocks or using mercury to amalgamate the gold. Systematically, however, we have seen that women’s cultural positioning puts them in what seem to be the most vulnerable and least lucrative roles. Women buy ore from the men who go down into the pit and dig it up, and they seem to have little bargaining power in determining the price of the ore that they buy.
It is taken as a given by everyone here that we ask that women don’t go down into the pit because the work is too physically demanding for them and too dangerous. In fact, it is said that women just don’t want to go into the pit. On reflection this is completely understandable; the work in the pit is long, hot, difficult, and potentially fatal.
Yet acceptance of the division of men and women’s roles in this way means that women generally (although there are of course exceptions, such as the female owners of mining shafts that we heard about on that first day) are at the bottom of the supply chain in the artisanal mining sector. Because it is a chain, one that stretches from the pit to the women and men who process the ore to the middlemen who buy the gold, and to wealthy buyers in Kenya and beyond. Women are there, buying the stones or reprocessing the already-processed remnants (tailings); by and large they are also the ones gambling the most that the stones they buy will be good stones, that they will yield gold, that they will earn something for the day to feed their children and pay school fees. Everybody works hard and takes risks: the shaft owners who invest and may see no return for months; the men in the hot pit; the women panning with mercury and hoping they will get enough gold to cover their costs and earn a little bit of money too.
To me, there has been something particularly touching about these women bent over their sluice boxes or basins, day after day, diligently working to get ahead in a job that is often a gamble. I have no doubt that the picture will get more complicated as we explore these issues further.
Stay tuned for Sarah’s next dispatch from Kenya…
This work was carried out with financial support under the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) initiative. GrOW is a multi-funder partnership with the UK Government’s Department for International Development, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the International Development Research Centre, Canada. This research is also taking place as part of the Women’s Livelihoods in Artisanal Mining Sectors: Rethinking State-Building in Conflict-Affected Africa project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Two of the lead researchers on this project, Blair Rutherford and Doris Buss, are with the Institute of African Studies at Carleton University.
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Sarah Katz-Lavigne is entering her third year as a PhD candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. Sarah’s research focuses on large-scale mining and property rights enforcement in the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Sarah is also a research assistant at Carleton’s Institute of African Studies. She is currently conducting research in Migori, Kenya, on gender dynamics in artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
Featured Photo by Sarah Katz-Lavigne.


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