Empowering Women in the Mines of the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo

April 30, 2015


Photo by Myriam Asmani / MONUSCO via Flickr Creative Commons

  • In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, 4 in 10 women in artisanal mining face sexual abuse to gain access to work or basic goods
  • Recent research suggests that such abuses are due to everyday actors—rather than armed groups—that take advantage of vulnerable populations based on livelihoods, education and economic access
  • The World Bank is working to launch a network in the DRC to raise public awareness and promote effective polices to protect women’s rights in mining sectors

After two decades of civil war and ongoing conflicts, vulnerable populations throughout the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have continually been pushed off their traditional agricultural land and forced to seek out their livelihood through other means such as artisanal mining.  It is estimated that between 500,000 and 2 million people work informally in the artisanal and small-scale mines of the DRC.  Workers in these mines suffer a variety of labor and social problems, but recently the question of human rights abuses, specifically sexual violence, has been widely reported by international media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Recent media coverage has drawn connections between rape against women, armed conflict and natural resource extraction, fuelling a narrative of women being victims of rape by armed groups in the mining areas of eastern DRC. However, little evidence-based research has examined the extent to which these claims best represent the challenges facing women in the mines of eastern DRC.   

From 2012 to 2014, the World Bank and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), designed and carried out a research project to examine the trends and scope of human rights abuses faced by women and men in the mines of eastern DRC. The results of this research challenge the perception that the violence is due to gangs that promote armed conflict, but rather it comes from everyday actors that take advantage of vulnerable populations based on livelihoods, education and economic access.    

" These results suggest that simply disarming rebel groups will not end abuses in the mining sector, since civilian power structures are some of the most exploitative.  "

Rachel Perks

Mining Specialist, World Bank

One woman revealed in an interview, how commonplace sexual violence is to the informal mining economy. Speaking of a mine supervisor she revealed that “he tells his friends not to work with her because she refused to have sex with them. People do the prostitution so that they can get other work. You are selling yourself, tiring yourself to get some money for your children.”

The research revealed that one in four women in mining towns self-identified as sex workers, and 4 in 10 reported having to trade sex simply to gain access to work or basic goods. Rape was cited by women as commonplace, though not predominantly at the hands of armed forces.  Perpetrators of sexual abuses were largely civilians working in traditional, local and state power structures.  

“These results suggest that simply disarming rebel groups will not end abuses in the mining sector, since civilian power structures are some of the most exploitative,” said Rachel Perks, Mining Specialist at the World Bank and co-author of the study.

Rather DRC faces much more systemic institutional problems.  Assistant Professor Laura Seay at Colby College said that “these research results show a narrow approach in DRC will not work.  Rather the problems are institutional and will require a long-term commitment to rebuilding rule of law, a functioning justice system, and effective delivery of public services.”

Research also found pervasive lack of education on rights and limited availability of social forms of organization for women and others. Only 26% of women and 40% of men knew there was a mining code in DRC with provisions to protect their right to work. More alarming, only 17% of women and 20% of men interviewed thought that women had the legal right to work in the mines.

In an effort to inform women in mining about their rights, the World Bank is working to establish a “Women in Mining” network, to be launched in August 2015 in the DRC. Promines, the mining sector reform program led by the Ministry of Mines in partnership with the World Bank, will fund a three day conference to bring together women from all segments of the country’s mining sector to discuss the latest research on women’s situation in the mines of the DRC, and establish the mandate and functioning of the network.  The conference will be hosted at the Catholic University in Bukavu, South Kivu. Women from other “Women in Mining” networks in sub-Saharan Africa will join the event to share their experiences of putting in place networks in their respective countries, and to support this landmark occasion for women’s development in the DRC.

Women’s networks have proven critical in raising awareness with government and policy makers on important public policy issues facing women in mining sectors globally. In the DRC, the network will focus not only on advocacy work at the national and subnational levels to improve working conditions for women; it will also connect women to solutions and knowledge in a variety of domains that improve their social and familial standing.