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Children risk their lives in Tanzania’s gold mines to help families

Four-year-old girl in Tanzania plays in an amalgamation pond contaminated with mercury while adults process gold.

Thousands of children as young as eight are risking their lives daily by working in Tanzanian small-scale gold mines, as they are constantly exposed to serious risks such as mercury poisoning and pit collapses, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released Wednesday.

The global rights watchdog’s document, Toxic Toil: Child Labor and Mercury Exposure in Tanzania’s Small-Scale Gold Mines, describes how children dig and drill in deep, unstable pits, work underground for shifts of up to 24 hours, and transport and crush heavy bags of gold ore. All this to support their impoverished families.

Children also face high risks of injuries from pit collapses and accidents with tools, as well as long-term health damage from exposure to mercury, breathing dust and carrying heavy loads.

Human Rights Watch also found that girls on and around mining sites face sexual harassment, including pressure to engage in sex work. Some girls become victims of commercial sexual exploitation and risk contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted infections.

“Tanzanian boys and girls are lured to the gold mines in the hopes of a better life, but find themselves stuck in a dead-end cycle of danger and despair,” said in a press release Janine Morna, children’s rights research fellow at Human Rights Watch. “Tanzania and donors need to get these children out of the mines and into school or vocational training.”

The human rights group urged the country’s government and the international community to tighten control over this extreme form of child labour.

In 2009, the country launched a national action plan to eliminate this problem, and even banned under-18s from engaging in hazardous work, including mining. Fast-forward four years and the initiative still hasn’t accomplished the main goal of at least reduce the total number of children employed in mines.

Tanzania is Africa’s fourth largest gold producer. In the first six months of 2013 exported over $1.8 billion of the precious metal, but the recent unrelenting slump in gold prices threatens to shut several of the country’s mines and curb investment.

Image reprinted with permission of Human Rights Watch/© 2012 Zama Coursen-Neff

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