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Women, Children and Ecoguards at Risk in Democratic Republic of Congo Mines

By allowing human rights violations, labour exploitation, and dangerous working conditions to go unchecked in its mining areas, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has failed to meet its obligations under international human rights conventions. The author calls for international mobilization, especially from the African Commission, to press the DRC to better align its state policies with its international obligations.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is rich in natural resources, but its population lives in extreme poverty. Exploited largely in an artisanal and anarchic manner, the DRC’s resources are a major factor in the multi-directional conflicts and smuggling in the African Great Lakes region, which has exacerbated social inequalities.

To this end, the country has ratified several international instruments to protect human rights that come into play when violations occur on Congolese territory. However, in light of the current situation, it is crucial that the international community respond actively by setting in motion its mechanisms to monitor and enforce human rights standards as well as to provide remedies.

New Mining Legislation

Following the 2015 United Nations summit, the DRC approved the Sustainable Development Agenda. In adopting these guidelines, the country made a firm commitment to ensure access to decent education for all without discrimination, including ensuring uninterrupted learning. It also resolved to take appropriate measures to ensure gender equality, empower women and girls, end child labour, and rapidly eradicate modern slavery, forced labour, and human trafficking.

The new mining legislation adopted in 2018 is aligned with this UN agenda and many other international legal instruments, such as the OECD Guide and the Kimberley Process, to ensure an ore's traceability and certification, regulate artisanal miners and improve working conditions at mining sites, among other things. In particular, the new legislation prohibits the hiring of children and pregnant women on mining sites and the use of mercury to separate gold from amalgam.

Inequalities and Harms to Women and Children

Despite these legislative and administrative advances, working conditions on mining sites remain a concern. The quarries are crowded with children and women, sometimes pregnant, who risk their lives and health to search for minerals. They are exposed to toxic products, including mercury. Most mining sites operate in areas that are partially or totally outside state control due to armed groups activity.

Furthermore, gender disparities and the economic gap between miners and traffickers are still noticeable, particularly in gold mining sites. Many customs do not allow women and girls to dig for gold, claiming that they are weak and a source of trouble. Where they are tolerated, they prepare food for the diggers, crush quartz, carry luggage, or wash sand. They are also employed in restaurants, bistros, and makeshift hotels. Those who engage in petty trade do not have enough financial stability to emancipate themselves and are vulnerable to insolvency and theft. The highest daily earnings of women and girls, whose work is related to the Congolese gold mining industry, are less than two dollars. They are subject to sexual harassment and often have to turn to prostitution to cover expenses, including food, school, and health fees for their children, make-up, and alcohol.

The consequences on mine-workers’ health are multiple and severe. They have lung, back, and eye problems. They are also subject to behavioural problems, abortions, unwanted pregnancies, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. The workers are forced to use wastewater and mercury-stained tools without proper protective equipment, and consequently, they give birth to children with deformities. Those who pound quartz are subjected to a systematic control at the end of the working day, including vaginal and anal touch. Very few of them know the consequences they face prior to starting work, and those who do know have no alternatives. They learn to live with daily humiliations and carry deep traumas within.

They are people at risk, illiterate, school dropouts, displaced persons, rape victims, orphans, addicts, or captives of armed groups active in the area. In order to be accepted and to be able to work, some pregnant women and children camouflage themselves; they hide their health status or conceal their age. Others bribe or negotiate. Some are subjected to what amounts to slavery. The practice includes sexual advances, forced marriage, drudgery or withholding pay for an undetermined period of time. Some elements of government forces and their dependents are also involved in the illicit exploitation of natural resources in conflict zones, according to the recent UN experts' report on the Congo. Natural resources in DRC are greatly coveted and one of the causes of the ongoing "proxy rebellion between Rwanda and Burundi" in South Kivu.

Disturbing Contradictions

The problem is that millions of school-age children in the DRC do not study. The free education enshrined in the 2006 constitution remains a challenge. Many teenagers have huge burdens, including children. However, the law prohibits people under 18 from working or having abortions, while access to contraceptives to limit or avoid pregnancy is complicated for women, if not impossible for unmarried women. The law also does not allow employers to require a pregnancy test to hire a woman at the mine site, but the need to feed and support their dependents drives children and pregnant women to join mining sites or armed groups active in the area despite the health risks. There is no public policy to provide support and care for low-income people and out-of-school miners.

As a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the DRC is in violation of its obligations as it tolerates such situations on its territory. As such, the accountability mechanisms of these international instruments should be set in motion.

Additionally, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, which campaigns against the illicit exploitation of natural resources, should be very committed to promoting transparency and traceability of minerals.

Tougher measures are needed to combat smuggling in all its forms and the exploitation of children, including women, at mining sites. Reforms are also needed to address the needs of adolescent girls and boys.

Protected Areas and Ecoguards at Risk

Blood minerals, mainly gold and coltan, are largely exploited in the provinces of former Kivu, Ituri, and Tanganyika. Most armed groups finance their activities with these metals, many of whose deposits are located in protected areas and other UNESCO heritage sites. The shift to this financial means has negative repercussions on the lives and security of ecoguards. They are the ones who bear the brunt of the conflicts between the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation and the Indigenous Pygmy peoples, local populations, and armed groups. Relocated without the necessary protection measures, the Pygmies constantly threaten to return. The local populations, who blame the park for encroaching on the boundaries of their territory, are also fighting to recover their rights. In addition, the fear of being dislodged from the protected areas leads armed groups to target the ecoguards. They see them as impostors at the service of the failing government, neighbouring states, and the international community to deprive the population of the enjoyment of its wealth.

Paradoxically, the national army often mistakes park rangers for militias or collaborators of foreign armed groups operating in the DRC. Abused from all sides, the penalty for a park warden is usually death. Moreover, because of the dysfunctional judicial system, criminals act with complete impunity. The decree of June 15, 2015, creating a Corps in charge of securing national parks and related nature reserves remains a mere manifestation of intent.

A Call for International Solidarity and Mobilization

There is no doubt that artisanal gold mining affects fundamental human rights. It exacerbates humiliating treatment and smuggling, and with those, inequality, violence, and poverty. The threat of extinction of protected areas and the many practices that are currently harming the health of local communities, particularly women and adolescent girls employed at mining sites, call for international solidarity for urgent measures to restore the dignity of the victims and to end this disaster.

As a first step, the African Commission should be approached to raise the issue of human rights abuses within the mining and gold mining companies in DRC. The African Commission could help to guide the practice of the DRC State towards the obligations contained in the African Charter. Furthermore, the Commission's sessions could be useful for NGOs to be better equipped and informed when carrying out field missions to better fulfill their functions.

Furthermore, children and women being particularly vulnerable, the international community (through the UN Human Rights Council) must mobilize in order to set up a commission of inquiry concerning the violation of human rights in the DRC, particularly concerning the violation of women's rights, children's rights (health, work, education), and more broadly of the Congolese affected by the situation (work, environment, poverty).

The author thanks Jeanne Pérès (LLM Candidate, McGill) for her translation and editing support.

About the author

Valentin Migabo

Valentin Migabo is an O’Brien Fellow in Residence (June 2021-May 2022) at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at McGill University.

Migabo is a political scientist and specialist in conflict and peace management, particularly for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but also, more broadly, for the Great Lakes region of Africa.


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