In Zimbabwe, child labour in the mining sector is a worrisome issue that affects thousands of children every year.
Despite laws prohibiting the practice, many children are forced to work in mines, often in dangerous conditions and without access to education or adequate health care.
One case of child labour in Zimbabwe’s mining sector is that of 14-year-old Tawanda, who works in a gold mine in the Makaha area of Mutoko.
Like many children, Tawanda is forced to work to support his family, as his parents are unemployed.
He spends long hours in the mine, digging for gold and carrying heavy loads, often working without protective equipment.
“l am Tawanda Saruchera, l come from a very poor family, my parents are both alive but they can’t afford to pay for my school fees.
“l am a second born in a family of 5. l started mining at the age of 11 because of my background. I am used to mining though it was hard for me during the first days. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to school and l had no option.
Tawanda is aware of the risks of working in the mine but says he has no choice.
“We use different harmful chemicals like mercury and cyanide which is very dangerous but we have no choice because the main goal is to bring food to the table for myself and my family. My elder brother stays in Mbare where he is a tout and he rarely comes home to see us so I am the breadwinner (laughing), and lam used to it,” he said.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) report, acute inhalation of mercury can directly affect the lungs, causing airway irritation, chemical pneumonitis, and pulmonary oedema, with consequent chest tightness and respiratory distress.
“High inhalational exposures can also lead to respiratory failure and death (Landrigan & Etzel, 2013). Systemic absorption of elemental mercury via the lungs causes nausea, vomiting, headache, fever, chills, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. When ingested, elemental mercury causes direct irritation of the gastrointestinal tract”, reads the report.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)5 defines a child/minor as a human being under the age of 18. The Convention notes that children are not just objects who belong to their parents and for whom decisions are made. They are human beings and individuals with their rights who must be allowed to grow, learn, play, develop, and flourish with dignity. To that end, the four principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child give an ethical and ideological dimension to Convention 6.
Another example of child labour is the story of Memory, a 12-year-old girl who works in a chrome mine near the town of Shurugwi.
Memory’s parents are also unemployed, and she is forced to work to help her family make ends meet.
She spends her days sorting through piles of rocks and rubble, looking for traces of chrome. Like Tawanda, she faces numerous risks, including respiratory problems from inhaling dust and injury from falling rocks.
“l am not the only child here, we are many and we are used to this. We face a lot of abuse like sexual harassment, exploitation by buyers, and other forms of abuse but there is nothing we can do, the goal is for us to make money,” she said.
Extreme poverty seems to be the main push factor forcing young children into artisanal mining.
“This is not safe for us but we have nothing to do, l am an orphan. l stay with my old grandmother who can’t afford to send me to school and the only solution for me to survive is to venture into mining,” said Jasper (15 years old) who is from Mutoko.
“Child labour is rampant here in Mutoko, if you come here during weekends, you will find hundreds of children doing mining, which is very risky,” said Samson Chibaira (28).
According to a report by the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA), since the COVID-19-induced lockdown and the schools shut down, the number of children involved in alluvial diamond and artisanal gold mining has increased.
“For diamonds, the activities include milling of alluvial diamonds, skirting of diamonds (mutsvare), cooking for the syndicates, and digging of diamond ore (kugweja). For gold, the alluvial mining is mainly happening along riverbeds like along the Makweto river, Saurombe river, Mazowe river, and Odzi river in Manicaland,” says the report.
To end this, Young Miners Foundation (YMF) Chief Executive Officer Payne Kupfuwa said they are educating children nationally about the dangers of illegal mining at a tender age.
“Mining should be taken as a business not a poverty-driven initiative or a get-rich-quick scheme therefore participants in the industry should be mature enough.
“There are some marginalised cases where young people are participating in small-scale mining and we have also tried to intervene and educate the children to show the effects of their participation in mining activities. There is violence in mining so it’s not good for the children to be working in those areas,” said Kupfuwa.
According to a report by the International Labour Organization, an estimated 1.9 million children are engaged in child labour in Zimbabwe, with mining being one of the worst affected sectors.
The root causes of child labour in Zimbabwe’s mining sector are complex and varied. Poverty, lack of access to education, and weak enforcement of labour laws all contribute to the problem.
Non-governmental organisations such as Plan International and Save the Children are also working to provide education and support to children affected by child labour.
Ultimately, ending child labour in Zimbabwe’s mining sector will require a concerted effort from both the government and the private sector.
Stronger enforcement of labour laws, increased investment in education and social programmes, and greater accountability for companies that use child labour are all necessary steps to address this pressing issue.
According to a statement by Action Aid Zimbabwe, a global justice federation working to achieve social justice, gender equality and poverty eradication,policy, inconsistencies such as the mismatch in legal age for marriage and age of consent have contributed to violation of children’s rights, especially the girl child.
“It is important for the Government to enact laws and policies to protect children from harmful practices that violate children’s rights such as girl child marriages, pledging to appease avenging spirits, and other violations of children rights affecting orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) and those with disabilities such as child labour, lack of access to education and to healthcare,” reads the statement.
By taking action, we can help ensure that children like Tawanda and Memory have the opportunity to live safe, healthy, and fulfilling lives.
NB. Please note, the names of the children under 18 are not the real names to protect their identities.