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A brief history of women in mining from a legal perspective

This article outlines a brief history of women in mining, from a legal perspective and how mining laws and legislation have come to shape the mining industry as we know it and what role the private sector should play to safeguard the future of women in mining.

Believe it or not, 200 years ago there were more women in the mining industry than today, maybe even up to ten times as many! In fact, in India alone, the percentage of women in mining went from 44% to 6% between the year 1900 and 2000. Why? Well, as with all things, you can blame the British.

In 1842 the British Mines and Collieries Act was enacted, and it barred women (and children) from working underground, out of “genuine” concern for their safety and in fact made it a crime to even allow women and children to work there.

No doubt, mining was dangerous and women (and children) were known to be taken advantage of, that is being underpaid and overworked and abused.

However, this was not accurately characteristic of all mine sites. They ignored thousands of years of families and communities working together on mine sites conducting small-scale and artisanal mining.

In an article published in 1842 showing women working underground while topless, wearing pants, and carting heavy loads harnessed to them like donkeys. People were worried mining would corrupt young women and little girls.

They were worried that men and women were fondling in dark corners underground. Some male union workers actually wouldn’t show up to sites that allowed women. It was argued that mining hampered women from tending to the home, from being good mothers and wives.

AUTHOR: Aviona Mabaso

The public cried, the politicians listened and enacted the Act of 1842. So instead of fixing the problems, they saw it fit to take women out of the environment completely.

The British Empire basically ruled the world during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The empire spanned the corners of the earth, with territories in Canada, Australia, India, South Africa and a huge chunk of the African continent.

British laws were exported to its colonies, including the Act of 1842. As you can imagine, this left a large number of women jobless and destitute, and rendered many family run operations unsustainable. Those few women who could started mining illegally did so, further pushing women into the dark corners of illegal mining and criminal activity.

Dealing with the apartheid legacy

In South Africa, we first saw this law in 1898 in the old Transvaal. This ban was again repeated in the Mines and Works Act of the Union of South Africa in 1911.

The International Labour Organisation surveyed member countries (most of whom had already banned underground and sometimes even surface work on mines) on what THEY thought of women in mining.

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And boom!  The Act’s influence reverberated all the way to the ILO and in 1935 Convention 45 was ratified, barring all women from working underground at any mine.

However, this time there was a proviso. A woman would be allowed underground if:

  1. She held a management position that didn’t require manual labour;
  2. If she provided health or welfare services;
  3. If she needed to spend a period underground for education purposes; and
  4. If she needed to perform other non-manual work.

Interestingly, to date, only about 30 countries have denounced Convention 45. Many sources say that South Africa has also denounced it, but the ILO website says we haven’t.

Finally, in 2018 the ILO recommended that Convention 45 be declared outdated, as in abrogated by disuse, and it’s on the agenda for 2024.

In South Africa the Mines and Works Act of 1911 was basically copy and pasted into the Mines and Works Act of 1956. Again, women were not allowed underground. The Minister could even go as far as bar women from working at specific sites or locals even above ground if he thought it was unsafe for them to do so.

Some sources said the exemptions from Convention 45 were carried over into this Act of 1956, but this has not been confirmed. But definitely in the Mines and Works Act of 1991 the proviso was carried over.

Now, one cannot speak about women in mining without touching on race. What was known as the “colour bar” was introduced to the Mines and Works Act of 1911 and it basically barred anyone who was not European, a Cape Coloured or Cape Malay, Mauritius Creoles and St. Helena persons from being granted any certificates of competency that you need in the mining world, like blasting licenses and competency to drive certain vehicles and machinery. Those are things that matter when you’re advancing a career in the mining industry.

If the absence of women from mining for all these years has caused unintended consequences and stigmas, then the same can be said of race. The absence of black and Indian men in these positions, has caused unintended consequences and stigma about them, especially in management positions on the mine.

Now can you imagine, the weight of being both woman and black or Indian on a mine?

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Finally, we were saved by the Constitution and a new South Africa was born! One of our founding values is to live in a non-sexist, non-racist State.  

When Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka was appointed Minister of Minerals and Energy in 1999, it was a game changer for women in mining. During her tenure, she supported and started a number of organisations, including Women in Nuclear South Africa, Women in Oil and Energy, South African Women in Mining Association, Youth Chamber of Mines, she oversaw the amendment of the Mining Rights Act and the Diamond Act, with a view to promoting access to both precious metals and precious stones for people who want to beneficiate, And she gave us the MPRDA which sets out to redress past injustices and redistribute mineral wealth to historically disadvantaged peoples.

Our newfound democracy gave opportunities for the first women to get degrees in mining engineering. Even though that wasn’t previously barred, women did not get the degrees because what is a mining engineer that can’t work underground? Dale Pearson was the first woman in South Africa to obtain a mining engineering degree from Wits in 1994. The first black woman did so almost a decade later, in 2005. her name was Celiwe Mosoane.

But we still had a long way to go. In 2002, Deborah Spicer wrote about Mosoane in a magazine article, saying. “Mosoane has already had some difficult experiences with male mine employees, who have refused to give her hearing protection equipment, while saying that she has no place being underground. She has also experienced the reticence of attendees at the two-yearly Electra Mining exhibition to speak to her while she was working at the fair. In addition, the department has had several negative experiences in ensuring that black women are awarded bursaries. The reception that black women students have had from the mining industry has been fairly cold, with the perception remaining that mining is a ‘rough and tough’ industry”  

There’s a table of stats on women studying mining engineering in South Africa at Wits and the University of Pretoria. Progress was pretty slow but something happened in 2007. Perhaps it was a consequence of Phumzile’s efforts.

The MPRDA repealed the Minerals Act as at 1 May 2004 and again the Act emphasises the new South Africa, to expand opportunities for historically disadvantaged persons, including women and communities, to enter into and actively participate in the mineral and petroleum industries to benefit from the exploitation of the nation’s resources.

In 2018, the Minerals Council of South Africa estimated that female representation in mining went from 3% to 15% between 2002 and 2018. Although the increase is commendable, it is far behind other industries. But it should be noted that South Africa is doing better than most jurisdictions on female representation in mines, especially in senior management and executive levels.

The MPRDA introduced the Mining Charter, which was eventually amended in 2018 and introduced targets for mining companies as well as the term “women owned and controlled companies”, being companies that are 51% or more woman held. New mining rights require a 20% BEE entrepreneur shareholder, 5% preferably women. Targets were also set for procurement. A minimum of 70% total mining goods spend must be on SA manufactured goods, 5% of which must be from women (or youth) owned and controlled companies. Similarly with services, a minimum of 80% of total spend on services (excluding non-discretionary spend) must be from SA based companies, 15% of which must be from woman owned and controlled companies.

The Mining Charter also set targets for employment equity that must be reached within five years. At board and executive management level the target is 50% historically disadvantaged persons, 20% of which must be women. At senior and middle management level, companies need 60% HDPs, 25% of which must be women. and at junior management level the target is 70%, 30% of which must be women.

The Employment Equity Act also seeks to identify and remove barriers to equitable representation in each occupational level. Currently companies set their own targets, but a bill was introduced last year that would allow the Minister of Employment and Labour to set numerical targets for representation in specific national economic sectors.

So what is the role of the private sector?

I think it is to:

  1. Educate employees on women in mining. Talk about the issues facing women in mining and include men in these inclusion and diversity programmes.
  2. Participate in everything. A survey, a task group, conferences like this one, give money to worthy causes, comment on legislation. And seek to collaborate with your counterparts in the industry. We can all benefit from learning from each other
  3. Increase support to small businesses owned by women
  4. Support female participation in STEM education
  5. Implement good ideas in your own organization, don’t just spend money coming to these things to listen then leave
  6. Report to the regulatory authorities appropriately and on time so that accurate stats on the effects of these laws can be obtained.

The Minerals Council of South Africa has also adopted a White Paper on Women in Mining in South Africa aimed at streamlining industry strategies to advancing women in mining. They came up with a host of strategies, including closing the gender pay gap, adaptation of workplaces to meet a woman’s needs and collaborations with relevant partners that advance the cause of women in mining.

Most importantly, I believe, is to show support for artisanal and small-scale mining. Support them by introducing them to safer working methods, responsible social and environmental practices, and alternatives to livelihood programmes, especially when your operations displace them. Also, support legislation that would benefit artisanal and small-scale mining.

We are farther from equitable female representation on mine sites today than we were 200 years ago. And although we have been given back the right to be underground, the issues we face are the same ones we faced 200 years ago. Except now men think we can’t even do the job because they have not seen us do these jobs in 200 years. And so, it is important that this time around, we have to fix the environment before women just opt out of the industry all together.

So, in conclusion, get out there and spread the word. We are not getting women INto mining, we are getting women BACK to mining.

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