Raped for slave wages: Women in Congo trapped in under-reported violence amid ‘conflict minerals’

By — February 13, 2015

Twenty-five years of breathing in dust has led Mireille Mbale to drink milk when she can afford it; it is what she believes will guard her against lung disease. She makes less than $5 a day. Years of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s brash sun have dried her exposed skin. Her shirts have rips from wear and her legs are powdered gray with dried mud. She wears flip-flops.

Every day, Mbale squats over a piece of mesh, sifting endless piles of dirt and rocks to try to find tiny specks of gold. There are days she comes to the loutras, the fenced-off tracts where gold is washed and reworked, when she does not know the men in charge. Either way, dealing with these men is difficult: “The woman is treated like a thing by the loutra owner,” she says. “She’s insulted and neglected.”

Women cook and care for children at a mine in the jungle 37 miles outside of Kisangani, Congo. (Malcolm Linton / Getty Images)

The Kamituga mine where Mbale works takes an entire day to get to on buses and motorcycles (when the roads become more difficult to navigate) from Bukavu, the capital of the eastern South Kivu province, a region that has been upheaved numerous times by militias coming through to kill, rape, and loot farmland. Panzi Hospital, which treats thousands of women raped each year, is nearby. The mine is one of hundreds sprinkled among the tree-stenciled hills, only 100 miles from the city but inland along mud roads that are more like precarious mazes of potholes. Heavy Mercedes, Toyota, and Fuso trucks carry ore away to traders five or six days distant. Women like Mbale work here for maybe six months to two years before they move to a site less picked over.

Canadian gold-mining company Banro owns the mining license for the land in Kamituga, but hasn’t opened its own sites yet. So right now the area’s quarries are run by various local chiefs, rebel groups, civilian men, or Congolese army officers, and operations run according to their own rules—or lack of them. Known as “artisanal mining,” this kind of small-scale business operates on various levels, not all of them legal. The worth of the “conflict minerals”—as gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten are called in the West—in these hills run as high as $24 trillion. Currently somewhat regulated by a U.S. law known as Dodd-Frank (the negative effects of which I recently wrote about extensively here), minerals are dug by an estimated 8 million to 10 million people such as Mbale—many of whom are women. And the experiences of these women are more exploitative than those of men, who suffer their own indignities, at the very same mines, experts say.

Despite what has been sown in the popular imagination when it comes to Congo, sexualized violence is not just perpetrated by men in military uniforms. Yes, a history of mass rape from nearly 20 years of conflict in the eastern part of the country has left a patina of ever-present fear among women working in fields—many of whom have been ambushed by men in uniform—but in the case of mines, rape by militias and Congolese army soldiers are only part of the problem.

Women have resorted to prostitution at the mines because it’s the only thing men will pay for in the area, they say—that, and a kind of hallucinogenic moonshine and drugs. They are given the lowest-paying and hardest jobs, the ones with the heaviest lifting, sources say, because of their subordinate status. And just to obtain the right to do that severe work, these women are often forced to sleep with mine owners; in other words, to get the permit needed for gathering water to wash stones, a grueling hernia-inducing process that requires making 40 trips up and down a steep hill every day, can require rape.

Marie-Rose Bashwira, a Congolese PhD candidate at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, calls this kind of violence “transactional sex,” in which women trade sex for the right to work. “Or even without working at all, [the mine owner] may give her the daily wage just for the sex,” she says.

Whatever you call it, the lives of women doing this work are at great risk and popular imagination does not include these multifaceted experiences. Since “sexual exploitation in the quarries takes on a whole other form than what you might think,” says Bashwira, solutions to better the lives of Congolese women are by default going to remain misguided until the full picture becomes known.

Women considered ‘bad luck’

There is a widespread belief that mines have a female spirit and the introduction of an actual woman into a quarry will be seen as competition by the spirit. This manages to keep bad-luck women like Mbale out of the mines themselves but it drives them into the truly heavy work: portering pounds and pounds of stones 30 miles to market on their backs and heads and grinding massive rocks, in addition to carrying water up and down hills. Not to mention prostitution and illegal trading, or smuggling.

“I have never seen a man doing that work,” says Laura Seay, an assistant professor of government at Colby College and an expert on Congo, of some of the more menial tasks. Labor is “pretty heavily gendered,” with the collection of water and firewood—anything that goes into cooking or bathing babies—a women’s purview. It’s “like 1950s America,” Seay says, if you take off the apron and put a chisel and a bunch of rocks into women’s hands.

Women are “in some ways treated like burdens,” Seay says. “It’s what you grow up doing. Little girls when they’re 5 or 6, that’s when it’s your turn to fetch the water in your family. To the people forcing them to participate in labor at these mines, it’s seen as this is what women should do.”

A deeply gendered split of labor mixed with entrenched cultural misogyny has wound women into a web of abuse.

If there’s a way for those with power to manipulate those beneath them in the mines, it seems they will. Female twangeuses, women who grind gold into powder for further processing, sometimes wear dresses or uniforms called wazekwa that have inside pockets used to conceal stolen nuggets. Then the men in charge use the possibility of theft as an excuse to grope them, according to a woman named Salima Cheko, a twangeuse and mother of five who has worked at mines since she was 15. “If they’re caught, the women are harassed, insulted, or even beaten by the owner of the loutras,” she says. “Most of the inspections are done by men.”

The inequality women face in this sector reflects an inequality for women overall in Congo—in or out of the mineral trade. “Excluded from power structures and decision-making structures, the only thing they are perceived to be responsible for is the violence that is perpetrated against them,” notes a September 2014 report from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative on women and mining in Congo.

Women occupy the jobs men don’t want and end up in the nooks that regulatory measures like Dodd-Frank can’t yet reach. Officially, they are permitted by Congolese law to have all the same jobs as men. But culturally, it’s clearly a different story; most women don’t know that they have the right to do all jobs and men are often fine with keeping women in the hardest positions, Bashwira says. A resulting division of labor has women struggling to pocket simple earnings, let alone gain respect and possible growth in their careers.

“Personally, I’d like to be good at financial management for small traders so I can make my own little profit,” says Mbale, but she believes she is stuck for good kneeling among chips of rock with pains in her back.

And ignorance and twisted conceptions of national and international laws allow men who “don’t want women to have access to real employment to use a legal excuse for marginalizing women,” according to the Harvard researchers.

On top of all the sexualized violence and gendered abuse, physical violence is ever-present. During her surveys at Kamituga, Bashwira witnessed an altercation between a woman and a miner. “The woman had just finished grinding a basin of stones when the miner, realizing he wouldn't get any material from it, refused to pay the woman,” she says. “When she began to argue with him, he began to beat her.” But once he noticed that there were outside witnesses watching, the man left, Bashwira says, “leaving [the woman] half the price that had been agreed on for the work.”

Economic violence is never far behind the physical within the currently existing mining structure. For the most part, women don’t have what is known as a miner’s or trader’s card so they go through men for money transactions, says Bashwira. Sometimes the male miner will just sell her ore and keep the money: “The woman finds herself with nothing and cannot go complain to anyone because she believes that no one listens to women.”

Yet another worry for women at the lowest levels of mining is the move toward large, international companies like Banro coming in to run industrial sites—they don’t hire women with no education. Naomi Nemeth, head of investor relations at Banro, brushed off this concern, saying: “Each job has its own qualifications as does any job anywhere in the world. If you don’t have the education level and the technical know-how, then you aren’t qualified to do the job.”

The direct effect of this kind of transition would be that women are ejected outright because they rarely have any education. Bashwira estimates that about 90 percent of the women at Kamituga alone are illiterate.

What can be done to help

There’s a lot of talking at the Congolese and little actual help being given. Congolese miners are getting sick of NGOs interviewing them and making promises to improve their lives with no follow-through, Bashwira told me.

Mining and agriculture are all these women know; they would need to either be trained in a new profession to free them from the mines or be given safe access to fields to farm. But very few people are doing that—certainly not the government. And local advocates are hardly shooting for the moon. Donatien Nakalonge of Volunteers for Rural Development, a non-governmental group that works in South Kivu and is known by its French acronym (VODER), said that perhaps women could be trained to “provide sanitation” at mines instead of doing heavy lifting.

“I don’t feel there’s any easy story for the women here,” says Sophia Pickles, the lead campaigner on conflict minerals at the U.K.-based advocacy organization Global Witness, which focuses on resources and corruption around the world. “I feel they’ve been ping-ponged around from one difficult spot to another difficult spot. Of course, we have to ask what are the companies doing but also, What is the state doing? What other livelihoods is the state working to provide people so they don’t have to work in mining?”

The answer all around is: Nobody is doing much. There are so-called “alternative livelihood” programs being implemented on a small scale by the U.S. government and international NGOs such as Pact. The money involved isn’t nearly enough to remedy such an entrenched, complex issue, experts say. A lack of education also leaves mainly lower-paying manual labor available for women, even if they are trained to do different work, such as sewing and tailoring or making bread. (Overall literacy of adult women in Congo, as last measured in 2010, is only 57 percent.) There isn’t a mass drive to educate women in Congo’s east, something that may lead to higher wages.

As journalist Jill Filipovic wrote in Foreign Policy in April 2014, “the political narrative about women and mines is a narrow and sometimes manipulative one: Stories of abuse draw attention to a pressing problem, but there is little subsequent discussion of how to empower women as economic and political actors in the development of Congo’s mining sector.”

Filipovic spoke to Joanne Lebert, director of the Great Lakes Program for Partnership for Africa Canada: “There may be well-intentioned programs, laws, and policies, but none of it is being evaluated, certainly not from a gender perspective,” she said.

First and foremost, says Bashwira, it’s crucial to imprint the importance of educating girls “by showing them real examples of women who have studied and succeeded in life.” On top of that, she stresses that women must be told that they have rights. When I was in eastern Congo last year, I met women who spend hours on community radio simply broadcasting these rights; it can be hard to reach women in rural areas with even the basics of what they should not be enduring in terms of abuse. “If the woman doesn’t blow the whistle on any of this, it’s because she doesn’t know she can,” Bashwira says. “To improve women’s conditions at mining sites, first the woman must acknowledge that she is in a position of weakness and that her condition has to be improved.”

The reality for those at the bottom of the mining chain is miserable. A miner at Kamituga named Françoise Kika, 43, says her work “weighs heavily” on her life. She started mining six years ago after her husband left her in order to try to feed her four children, and it’s not going all that well. “Personally, I don't benefit from the wealth that comes from our country’s resources. It’s the mining group, the tribal group, and the state service agents that benefit.”

Women are not the only ones stuck in a terrible system, but they are the ones who generally lose in the end. Just about 100 percent of their options in the current system—and possibly in the one to come—involve being brutally exploited.

Mireille Mbale, who works 12-hour days for pennies at Kamituga, has given up on improving her own life. She looks to the arrival of the future as the only way out of misery.

“The way I’m realizing my dreams is by getting my daughter an education up to the university level, and buying a small piece of land to take care of my household,” she says. And failing that, she adds, “I pray that I’ll find a husband.”