Senegal: Female gold panners at risk

Bantako, a small Senegalese village, discovered gold in 2008

Gold Mine
Gold Mine


When Aminata Balde left Guinea last year to work as a gold miner in Senegal, she had high hopes of returning home to her children before this summer's rainy season.

But now, despite working eight hours a day under blistering heat, her earnings might not be enough to pay for the journey back to Guinea.

Aminata is one of many women who work at at Senegal's Bantako mine.

Returning to her family empty-handed is not an option.

"I'm worried. Sometimes we feel like crying," said Aminata Balde, a bright yellow scarf wrapped around her face.

"I left my children and came to work in gold mining here, without knowing exactly when I'll be able to come back."

How difficult is the mining work?

The Bantako mine stretches over hundreds of meters. Blinding white piles of stones contrast with lines of black holes, dug up to 50 meters deep.

Aminata Balde's tasks mainly consist of pulling stone bags from the wells using a metal winch.

The stones then have to be sorted according to their potential gold content, before being crushed into powder — a strenuous job, however it has the potential to provide earnings far beyond the income earned from traditional agriculture.

"Sometimes my shoulders hurt, my entire body hurts, I suffer from muscle aches all night," Ousseynou Ba, a golder miner from Tambacounda, told DW.

"But in the morning, I have no time to rest, I have to start my routine again so I can feed my children."

Going back to farming is not an option for Ousseynou.

"In agriculture, you need to buy seeds, fertilizer, herbicides — it's not even worth trying," she said.

One gram of gold alone is bought for 30,000 CFA francs (around €50).

The average monthly salary in Senegal is around 90,000 CFA francs. Finding a gram in a day is very unusual but happens often enough for tens of thousands of people to take a chance.

Over 20 nationalities make the journey to Senegal's southeast region of Kedougou to find work in the mines.

Women at risk of exploitation

Kedougou, which borders Mali and Guinea, has become a major destination for the gold rush happening in Western Africa.

This has attracted business to the area — but also a fair share of trafficking, such as drugs and human trafficking.

"Women are very vulnerable in and around the mines," explained Aliou Bakhoum, manager for the NGO La Lumiere.

"Gender-based violence is present and there is also the sexual exploitation of girls, especially from foreign countries such as Nigeria."

Bakhoum's organization provides shelter for trafficked girls and helps them move back to their home country.

"One of them is pregnant," said Aliou Bakhoum, pointing to the shelter's sleeping area.

"We have girls who are 12 years old and who were forced to prostitute themselves," he said.

"And then there are also the diseases, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and so on."

Working while pregnant

At Kedougou's hospital, head midwife Diabou Sissokho said that about half of her patients work at mining sites.

Women are usually referred here due to lack of material and expertise at the local health centers.

Many sex workers or miners come with late or unwanted pregnancies. Other women and their babies are endangered by a lack of prenatal care.

"They are doing a heavy job. Sometimes, there are risks of premature births," explained Diabou Sissokho, who has been working her way through a line of women outside of her office.

While some mining sites forbid women to work while pregnant, the rule is not always enforced.

"Usually, pregnant women who come to the mining sites are struggling to sustain themselves," explained Aliou Bakhoum. "So if you forbid someone from working, but you don't give them food, that's difficult," explained Aliou Bakhoum.

After giving birth, many return to work almost immediately, carrying their babies on their backs.

Lack of career opportunities

La Lumiere's Aliou Bakhoum pointed out that women are relegated to low-scale labor work alone, which prevents them from climbing the traditional hierarchy in the mines.

"It's rare to see a woman owning a mine," Bakhoum said.

Women-led organizations are trying to fight for their economic empowerment, and the government too is trying to implement solutions. But men dominate politics as well as the mines, making it difficult for the situation to change.

But, until it does, occasionally striking gold gives enough motivation for women to continue their struggle in the hope of striking gold.

Kadiatou Sidibe, who has been coming back to Bantako for the past seven years, has grown used to the heat and the physical tiredness.

"Sometimes we're able to get some gold, and this gives us the courage to work even more," she said, half smiling, as she took rest in the shade.

Edited by: Keith Walker

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