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One Zambian mining community puts women’s issues front and center

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Kabwela community members gather outside a grade school to discuss their concerns about contaminated water and soil due to their proximity to a mine. Photo: Simona Combi/Oxfam

Pollution disproportionately affects women in mining communities

Abby Maxman is the president of Oxfam America.

Deep in the countryside of Zambia, communities near Kansanshi, the largest open-pit copper mine in Africa, are seeing few benefits from the copper that is extracted from their ancestral lands. Worse yet, they are struggling to get by with water and soil that they believe is contaminated.

With some of the largest reserves of copper in Africa, Zambia plays a key role in the global copper mining industry. Copper mining is one of the largest sources of revenue for the country. Sadly, not much of this revenue is reaching the communities affected directly by mining. This was confirmed to me on a recent visit to Kabwela, the closest community to the mine.

Gathered at dusk in a circle outside the three-room structure that is their school for grades one through seven, a number of men and women from the community described their challenges while their kids played nearby.

“If we had safe, clean drinking water, our families would be healthy,” said one community member.

After repeated complaints from the community about contaminated water, the mine operator, First Quantum, dug some boreholes. Unfortunately, community members reported that two of them do not actually work and were insufficient to begin with.

And it is not just clean water they were concerned about, but also a lack of resources for their school and a health clinic.

“It takes someone sick 5 kilometers [3 miles] to walk to the clinic to receive health services,” reported a community leader.

Environmental degradation and lack of community resources are, unfortunately, very frequent issues in mining communities, and women (and often girls as well) usually bear the brunt of dealing with such challenges. They have to walk farther to get clean water and wood. They have to deal with an increase in unpaid care work. And these are just a fraction of the impacts that mining can cause.

Mining affects livelihoods and family farms that women often manage. In Kabwela, the locals believe that agricultural production is suffering because the soil has become acidic.

“The coming of the mines has destroyed our soils because crops can’t grow like they used to in the past,” said another local woman.

The arrival of a mine can also mean a transition to a more cash-based economy with an influx of transient, predominantly male mine workers. Mirriam Lubinda, a young woman from Kabwela, shared with me that she is extremely worried about the growing trend of teenage pregnancies among her peers, which derails their efforts to get an education.

While men often benefit from mining because they can get paid work, women can be negatively affected—they often don’t get the well-paying jobs the industry can provide, or benefit from compensation (compensation is typically awarded to male heads-of-households). Yet, women are the ones who care for the sick, take care of their families while the men are at work, and deal with the mine’s environmental impact.

What gives me hope, however, is that in Kabwela, women are speaking up.

In a community where patriarchal leadership structures still prevail, both women and men are voicing their concerns about the impact the mine is having on the lives, livelihoods, and well-being of women and girls.

Gender inequality is the most pervasive form of discrimination in the world, and it is no coincidence that the majority of the world’s poor are women and girls. Entrenched gender bias, in Zambia and around the world, not only prevents women from engaging with and accessing the economic benefits of extractive industries, but manifests in how companies and governments engage with communities at all stages of project activities. Gender-blind policies and practices in community consultation and decision-making processes give rise to the systematic exclusion of women and a silencing of women’s perspectives, agendas, and interests in relation to oil, gas, and mining projects.

These are not easy problems to fix. But Oxfam is working with local partners to call on oil, gas, and mining companies to be responsive to the communities where they operate and to make women’s rights and working towards gender justice a priority. We are also working to ensure that mining companies consult with women and men from local communities so that everyone benefits.

Clean water, access to health services—especially for pregnant women and children under five, and preventing unwanted pregnancies in young women still going to school—would go a long way to making life better in these Zambian communities.

Oxfam is also urging mining companies and industry associations to adopt gender-specific policies and to respect community rights to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent and for the Zambian government to create mechanisms that allow communities to benefit from mining revenue proceeds. When the community is involved, especially women, more of the benefits are spread around.

You can learn more about women’s rights and women’s activism in the extractive industries sector in the November issue of the Gender & Development Journal. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+