Navigating a Web of Exclusions: Women in Eastern DRC’s Coltan Mines

(This article is available in both English and French. Scroll down for the French translation)

Clémentine is a 23-year-old coltan miner and mother of three, who dropped out of high school to get married.[1] A few years ago a friend invited her to try out mine work, teaching her how to mine. Her husband, who is also a miner, gave her a small loan of $300 USD to get started in washing, separating and trading of coltan. He started mining when he was 15, saving enough money and working his way up from digging work to trading work – which is more lucrative and less physically demanding. They live two houses down from Clémentine’s mother and younger siblings, a 15 minute walk from a small mine site in a creek bed where she works in Masisi Territory in North Kivu province of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (hereafter Congo or DRC). Clémentine and her husband work as a team and sell up to 50Kgs of coltan, profiting $30-50 USD over the course of a week.

Map of Eastern DRC.

Most people have probably come across a depressing article of some kind about human rights abuses, child labour or – so called – ‘conflict minerals’ fueling war in eastern DRC, as miners work to extract the mineral necessary for your cell phone battery. These unidimensional portrayals of women, mining and the DRC more broadly, have created problematic dominant narratives of Congolese women as victims and the mining industry as solely exploitative. While conducting three months of fieldwork in artisanal coltan mines in Masisi from July – October 2019 for my master’s degree at the University of Cape Town, several intersecting forms of exclusions were vividly present for women, primarily based on socio-economic status and gender. However, women employed creative strategies to overcome these exclusions and maintain work in mining. In contrast to the bleak news article you have read or documentary you have seen about mineral extraction in eastern DRC, this article seeks to push back on these dominant narratives about mining in the region especially as it pertains to women, by showing how women navigate the complexity of mine work. I will begin by briefly situating the mineral and the means, followed by a description of women’s exclusions and then discuss how women overcome these exclusions.

Broadly speaking, mining is historically considered male-dominated and a highly masculine industry. However, mining in the region is a major economic driver and women are very active in mine work in the DRC. The World Bank estimates that artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) directly employs two million Congolese, of which 50% or one million are women. When you consider the industry’s dependents (the number of family members supported by each miner), artisanal mining supports 10 million people, about 16% of the national population.[2] Not only are women active in mining, they also seek mine work and move to mine communities.[3]

Artisanal mine site in Masisi. Photograph by author.

Coltan, the short form for columbite-tantalite which derives tantalum,  is necessary for a wide range of metal products including jet engines, electric cars, pacemakers and hearing aids; but is more commonly  known for its use in all modern digital technologies like cell phone and laptop batteries. The extraction and processing of coltan is labour intensive, so it lends well to artisanal extraction or what is essentially ‘hand mining’ and involves at least 6-8 steps from extraction to export. First it is dug out of muddy creek beds, washed, separated and refined in large open pit mines to a fine black powder, then transported to export houses in the provincial capital Goma. From there, after further industrial refinement and once accumulated into large quantities, the mineral travels overland by truck to ports in Dar es Salam and Mombasa for shipment to Malaysia, Thailand and China for smelting in the fabrication of various tec components. At this point consumer companies, like Apple and IBM, buy the components already manufactured, so they can assemble the device you’re using to read this article.

Women are involved at every step of this process but as the income earning potential increases, women’s participation decreases. A lack of access to credit or adequate financial capital keeps women in the least financially viable mine tasks, such as washing and separating work. In contrast to an industrial mine setting where employees are salaried, each miner works for themselves with their own capital to dig and trade minerals, so women are significantly disadvantaged by not having money to invest in upfront trade. In addition, gendered social norms surrounding masculinity and femininity exclude women from more lucrative mine tasks. In an interview with a woman who buys, refines and resells small quantities of coltan, she told me she didn’t conduct digging work because “it was a man’s job.” Her statement reflects how women’s engagement in mine work is highly associated to and restricted by localized social norms surrounding ‘men’s work’ vs ‘women’s work’. Of course, the exclusion of women from digging work is not actually because women lack the physical strength to do so but rather emerges as a way to exclude women from mine work based on social categorizations and restrictions. As a matter of fact, when I engaged in all the mine techniques I found the washing and refinement work to be much more physically uncomfortable and difficult then digging work. These two combined factors further contributed to women’s exclusion from distinct physical spaces at the mine sites, often resulting in a vivid and symbolic separation of the labour force based on gender, with women on one side of the creek bed and men on the other.

The Kivu highlands with artisanal mine site in the distance. Photograph by author

Lastly, women who work with babies are often chased out of mine sites by authorities since ‘children’ are not legally permitted in mine sites. Since women are the primary childcare providers and childcare services do not exist in this context, the need to bring babies to work is common and ends up excluding women from mine work in order to compensate for the child. However, there is actually no proven health risk associated with coltan extraction, so health considerations for the child are unfounded.[4]

In response, women have engaged in highly creative and resilient strategies to overcome these exclusions. At one mine site, women had organized into a group of 20, with elections by secret ballot for the position of President, Vice-President and Treasure in order to create their own credit system and conflict resolution mechanism for disputes at the mine sites. In that particular case study, women directly addressed their in-access to capital by creating their own system to access small loans and enhance their financial capacity. In this expression of gendered solidarity women had a way to address their systemic disadvantage and foster a form of counter-power to financial exclusion. In addition, in response to the spatial exclusion of women from the physical mine site, a female miner shared how she managed to hire other miners (male of course) to work on her behalf, circumventing her exclusion.  Lastly, at one site women had a secret alert system amongst themselves used to protect each other when working with babies. Often signaling and calling up to each other when authorities would approach to punish women for mining with babies, women worked together to protect each other. All of these instances demonstrate how women creatively maintain their presence in mine work, despite exclusions based on socio-economic status and gender, fostering collective and individual strategies to benefit from mining capitalism.

While this is not to say women do not face specific vulnerabilities and challenges, what my masters research reiterated is that women do not passively accept their exclusion but actively address inequalities. The small everyday acts and strategies highlighted above, demonstrate how women contribute to social transformation within their work environments, despite overwhelming odds. In this way, women miners hold multi-layered positionalities as marginalized labourers but active agents in mine work. In navigating this complex web of exclusions, women employ creative strategies to maintain their presence in the industry, while further addressing and shifting structural inequalities in the industry. As Clémentine said to me, “I changed my strategy, even though I was chased out.” Words to carry us all forward into and beyond women’s month.

[1] Pseudonyms are used in this article to protect the identity of research participants.

[2] World Bank, Oil/Gas, Mining and Chemicals Department, Democrapic Republic of Congo Growth and Governance in the Mining Sector, 2008, report 43402-ZR, Washington DC, 56.

[3] Beth J. Maclin, Jocelyn TD Kelly, Rachel Perks, Patrick Vinck, and Phuong Pham, “Moving to the mines: Motivations of men and women for migration to artisanal and small-scale mining sites in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Resources Policy 51 (2017): 115-122.

[4] Klaus J.Schulz, Nadine M. Piatak and John F. Papp, “Niobium-Tantalum” in Critical Mineral Resources of the United States – Economic and environmental geology and prospects for future supply. US Geological Survey, 2017,




Par : Allison Furniss

Août 2020

Clémentine est une mineuse de coltan de 23 ans et mère de trois enfants, qui a abandonné le lycée pour se marier.[1] Il y a quelques années, une amie l’a invitée à essayer le travail minier, en lui apprenant à mener un travail minier. Son mari, qui est également mineur, lui a accordé un petit prêt de 300 $ US pour se lancer dans le lavage, la séparation et le commerce du coltan. Il a commencé l’exploitation minière à l’âge de 15 ans, économisant suffisamment d’argent et passant du travail de creusage au travail commercial – ce qui est plus lucratif et moins exigeant physiquement. Ils vivent à deux maisons de la mère de Clémentine et de ses frères et sœurs plus jeunes, à 15 minutes à pied d’un petit site minier dans un lit de ruisseau où elle travaille dans le territoire de Masisi dans la province du Nord-Kivu à l’est de la République Démocratique du Congo (ci-après Congo ou RDC). Clémentine et son mari travaillent en équipe et vendent jusqu’à 50 kg de coltan, pour un bénéfice de 30 à 50 $ US en une semaine.

La plupart des gens sont probablement tombés sur un article déprimant sur les violations des droits de l’homme, le travail des enfants ou – les soi-disant « minerais de conflit » qui alimentent la guerre dans l’est de la RDC, alors que les mineurs travaillent pour extraire les minéraux nécessaires pour la batterie de votre téléphone portable. Ces représentations unidimensionnelles des femmes, des mines et de la RDC plus largement, ont créé des discours dominants problématiques des femmes congolaises en tant que victimes et de l’industrie minière comme étant exploitée uniquement. En menant trois mois de travail de terrain dans les mines artisanales de coltan à Masisi de juillet à octobre 2019 pour mon master à l’Université du Cap, plusieurs formes croisées d’exclusions étaient vivement présentes pour les femmes, principalement basé sur le statut socio-économique et le sexe. Cependant, les femmes ont utilisé des stratégies créatives pour surmonter ces exclusions et maintenir leur travail dans le secteur minier. Contrairement à l’article de presse sombre que vous avez lu ou au documentaire que vous avez vu sur l’extraction minière dans l’est de la RDC, le présent article cherche à repousser ces discours dominants sur l’exploitation minière dans la région, en particulier en ce qui concerne les femmes, en montrant comment les femmes naviguent la complexité du travail minier. Je commencerai par situer brièvement le minéral et les moyens, suivi par une description des exclusions des femmes et ensuite discuter de la manière dont les femmes surmontent ces exclusions.

D’une manière générale, l’exploitation minière est historiquement considérée comme une industrie dominée par les hommes et très masculine. Cependant, l’exploitation minière dans la région est un moteur économique majeur et les femmes sont très actives dans les travaux miniers en RDC. La Banque mondiale estime que l’exploitation minière artisanale et à petite échelle (ASM) emploie directement deux millions de Congolais, dont 50% ou un million sont des femmes. Si l’on considère les personnes à charge de l’industrie (le nombre de membres de la famille pris en charge par chaque mineur), l’exploitation minière artisanale soutient 10 millions de personnes, soit environ 16% de la population nationale.[2] Non seulement les femmes sont actives dans l’exploitation minière, elles recherchent également des travaux miniers et s’installent dans les communautés minières.[3]

Le coltan, la forme abrégée de la colombite-tantalite qui dérive du tantale, est nécessaire pour une large gamme de produits métalliques, notamment les moteurs à réaction, les voitures électriques, les stimulateurs cardiaques et les appareils auditifs ; mais il est plus connu pour son utilisation dans toutes les technologies numériques modernes telles que les batteries de téléphones portables et d’ordinateurs portables. L’extraction et le traitement du coltan sont à forte intensité de main d’œuvre, il se prête donc bien à l’extraction artisanale ou à ce qui est essentiellement une « extraction manuelle » et implique au moins 6 à 8 étapes de l’extraction à l’exportation. Tout d’abord, il est creusé dans des lits de ruisseaux boueux, lavé, séparé et raffiné dans de grandes mines à ciel ouvert en une fine poudre noire, puis transporté vers des maisons d’exportation dans la capitale provinciale Goma. De là, après un raffinement industriel supplémentaire et une fois accumulé en grandes quantités, le minerai voyage par voie terrestre par camion vers les ports de Dar es Salam et de Mombasa pour être expédié en Malaisie, en Thaïlande et en Chine pour être fondu pour la fabrication de divers composants tech. À ce stade, les sociétés de consommation, comme Apple et IBM, achètent les composants déjà fabriqués pour pouvoir assembler le périphérique que vous utilisez pour lire cet article.

Les femmes participent à chaque étape de ce processus, mais à mesure que le potentiel de revenus augmente, la participation des femmes diminue. Le manque d’accès au crédit ou à un capital financier suffisant maintient les femmes dans les tâches minières les moins viables financièrement, telles que le travail de lavage et de séparation. Contrairement à une mine industrielle où les employés sont salariés, chaque mineur travaille pour soi-même avec son propre capital pour creuser et commercialiser des minerais, de sorte que les femmes sont considérablement désavantagées étant donné qu’elles n’ont pas d’argent pour investir dans le commerce initial. En outre, les normes sociales sexospécifiques entourant la masculinité et la féminité excluent les femmes des tâches minières plus lucratives. Dans une interview avec une femme qui achète, raffine et revend de petites quantités de coltan, elle m’a dit qu’elle n’avait pas fait de travaux de creusement parce que « c’était le travail d’un homme ». Sa déclaration montre à quel point l’engagement des femmes dans le travail minier est étroitement associé et limité par les normes sociales localisées concernant le « travail des hommes » par rapport au « travail des femmes ». Bien sûr, l’exclusion des femmes du travail de creusage n’est pas en fait parce que les femmes n’ont pas la force physique pour le faire, mais apparaît plutôt comme un moyen d’exclure les femmes des travaux miniers sur la base de catégorisations et de restrictions sociales. En fait, quand je me suis engagé dans toutes les techniques minières, j’ai trouvé que le travail de lavage et de raffinement était beaucoup plus inconfortable physiquement et difficile que le travail de creusage. Ces deux facteurs combinés ont en outre contribué à l’exclusion des femmes d’espaces physiques distincts sur les sites miniers, entraînant souvent une séparation vive et symbolique de la main-d’œuvre fondée sur le sexe, les femmes d’un côté du lit du ruisseau et les hommes de l’autre.

Enfin, les femmes qui travaillent avec des bébés sont souvent chassées des sites miniers par les autorités car les « enfants » ne sont pas légalement autorisés sur les sites miniers. Étant donné que les femmes sont les principales pourvoyeuses de garde d’enfants et que les services de garde d’enfants n’existent pas dans ce contexte, la nécessité d’amener les bébés au travail est courante et finit par exclure les femmes des travaux miniers au profit de l’enfant. Cependant, il n’y a en fait aucun risque avéré pour la santé associé à l’extraction du coltan, ainsi les considérations de santé pour l’enfant ne sont pas fondées.[4]

Comme réponse, les femmes se sont engagées dans des stratégies hautement créatives et résilientes pour surmonter ces exclusions. Sur un site minier, les femmes s’étaient organisées en groupe de 20, avec des élections au scrutin secret pour les postes de présidente, de vice-présidente et de trésorière afin de créer leur propre système de crédit et mécanisme de règlement des conflits sur les sites miniers. Dans cette étude de cas particulière, les femmes ont abordé directement leur accès au capital en créant leur propre système pour accéder à de petits prêts et renforcer leur capacité financière. Dans cette expression de solidarité sexiste, les femmes avaient un moyen pour remédier à leur désavantage systémique et de favoriser une forme de contre-pouvoir à l’exclusion financière. De plus, en réponse à l’exclusion spatiale des femmes du site physique de la mine, une mineuse a expliqué comment elle avait réussi à embaucher d’autres mineurs (des hommes bien sûr) pour travailler en son nom, contournant son exclusion. Enfin, sur un autre site, les femmes disposaient d’un système d’alerte secret entre elles pour se protéger les unes les autres lorsqu’elles travaillaient avec des bébés. Souvent, se signalant et s’interpellant lorsque les autorités s’approchaient pour punir les femmes pour l’exploitation minière avec des bébés, les femmes ont travaillé ensemble pour se protéger. Tous ces exemples démontrent comment les femmes maintiennent de manière créative leur présence dans les travaux miniers, malgré les exclusions basées sur le statut socio-économique et le sexe, en encourageant des stratégies collectives et individuelles pour bénéficier du capitalisme minier.

Même si cela ne veut pas dire que les femmes ne sont pas confrontées à des vulnérabilités et des défis spécifiques, ce que ma recherche de master a réitéré, c’est que les femmes n’acceptent pas passivement leur exclusion mais s’attaquent activement aux inégalités. Les petits actes et stratégies quotidiens mis en évidence ci-dessus démontrent comment les femmes contribuent à la transformation sociale au sein de leur environnement de travail, malgré des obstacles écrasants. De cette manière, les femmes mineuses occupent des positions à plusieurs niveaux en tant que manœuvres marginalisées mais agents actifs dans le travail minier. En naviguant sur ce réseau complexe d’exclusions, les femmes utilisent des stratégies créatives pour maintenir leur présence dans l’industrie, tout en s’attaquant et en modifiant les inégalités structurelles dans l’industrie. Comme me l’a dit Clémentine, « j’ai changé de stratégie, même si j’ai été chassée. » Des mots pour nous faire avancer dans le mois des femmes et au-delà.

[1] Des pseudonymes sont utilisés dans cet article pour protéger l’identité des participants à la recherche.

[2] World Bank, Oil/Gas, Mining and Chemicals Department, Democrapic Republic of Congo Growth and Governance in the Mining Sector, 2008, report 43402-ZR, Washington DC, 56.

[3] Beth J. Maclin, Jocelyn TD Kelly, Rachel Perks, Patrick Vinck et Phuong Pham, « Moving to the mines: Motivations of men and women for migration to artisanal and small-scale mining sites in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo », Resources Policy 51 (2017): 115-122.

[4] Klaus J. Schulz, Nadine M. Piatak et John F. Papp, « Niobium-Tantalum » dans Critical mineral resources of the United States—Economic and environmental geology and prospects for future supply. US Geological Survey, 2017,

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Allison Furniss

Allison Furniss is a Master of Philosophy candidate in the department of politics at the University of Cape Town and will be starting her PhD in early 2021. Allison is born and raised in northern Canada, having lived in Cape Town for the past three years. Allison’s graduate research focuses on the micro-politics of mining through a gendered lens, applying ethnographic research methods and feminist epistemologies to better understand the production chain of modern digital technologies. Previous to her graduate studies she lived in Tanzania and Namibia for 4 years working for sport for peacebuilding and social change non-profit organizations. Allison is passionate about social justice and was an active volunteer in politics and labour advocacy in her home territory of the Yukon before moving to Cape Town.
2,138 Responses
  1. Linda Kantor

    What a privilege to know you and to read the wonderful article you have written.Please make sure you continue your wonderful and most insightful work.Always an inspiration to us all,privately and through your connections with Sea Point Rotary.

  2. Lois Craig

    Thanks Allison. Tis great to see this written up and better understand how women coltan miners are creatively managing. It will be interesting to watch how additional strategies and changes unfold too with time. It will come albeit slowly. It made me think of how women in mining have advanced here in northern Canada over the past decade. I will send this along to other Rotarians here in Yukon and Alaska as promised. Best regards and hi to Linda– Lois p sI am still trying to track down Arnie– would love for him to read this.

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