More than 12,000 children have been freed from life-threatening work in gold mines in Tanzania over the past three years according to Plan International, the children’s rights organization that spearheaded the initiative. The children, some of whom were as young as eight years old, have been reintegrated back into schools as part of the effort to curb child labor in the dangerous industry.
“When my mother died our father abandoned us and he never supported us,” Antonia Benedict, a 13-year-old who was rescued from work in a gold mine said during a discussion on child labor in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam.
Benedict’s only option was to work in a mine, despite the fact that her mother was killed while doing so.
“I had to work to get a little money to buy food for my siblings,” she said. “With the little I earned I had to buy maize flour and some vegetables to feed my younger brother and sister.”
Through PLAN International’s work, nearly 5,000 of the rescued children’s families have been offered access to credit so that they can create alternative revenue streams to keep their children from having to mine.
While the effort has no doubt had a huge impact on the lives of the children rescued from Tanzanian gold mines, about a million children between the ages of five and 17 work in small-scale mining and quarrying activities around the world according to the United Nations.
Mining pays a mere pittance. Child miners earn only about two dollars a day — despite grave risks to their health and safety.
Children are often forced deep into unstable pits because of their small stature, and made to to crush or transport heavy loads of gold ore. Among the most serious health risks posed by extracting gold, however, is that caused by exposure to mercury, which is used to melt away minerals to isolate bits of gold.
Tanzania lobbied for and signed on to the Minamata Mercury Convention in 2010, but use of the extremely hazardous chemical is still pervasive in the country, especially in the smaller, illegal mines that employ children, according to Human Rights Watch.
The organization’s 2013 report titled, “Toxic Toil: Child Labor and Mercury Exposure in Tanzania’s Small-Scale Gold Mines,” the risks of mercury exposure can last a lifetime.
Mercury attacks the central nervous system and can cause lifelong disability to children, whose developing bodies are more easily affected by the heavy metal. The miners, including children, mix mercury with crushed ground ore and burn the resulting gold-mercury amalgam to release the gold, exposing them to poisonous mercury fumes. Even small children who are not working are often present during this process, which is sometimes carried out in the home.
Some child miners Human Rights Watch spoke to were aware of the risks.
“The fumes make you feel dizzy when you are working. If the mercury gets in your mouth, you can die,” Emmanuel, a 13-year-old miner said.
Parents wished for alternatives, but felt there were few options for them to combat grave poverty without mining.
“If I could I would send my children to school, but I can’t,” Upendo Erick, a miner and mother of six said. “They just have to work.”
While thousands of families will no longer have to make the choice between earning a living and obtaining an education, the stakes of mining remain high.
Tanzania is Africa’s fourth largest producer of gold. The country’s earnings from extractive industries like gold mining have quadrupled between 2009 and 2012, when they took in $468 million.
Gold from small, often unregulated most often finds its way to the United Arab Emirates after changing hands several times. It’s also exported to Switzerland, South Africa, China, and the United Kingdom.
“Whether small or large, Tanzanian or global, businesses should avoid becoming entangled with unlawful child labor in their supply chain,” Janine Morna, author of the Human Rights Watch Report said. “As those with the buying power, gold traders have leverage over their suppliers. They should use it to protect children and to protect consumers from buying gold tainted by child labor.”
Although Tanzania has strong laws prohibiting child labor in mining, and has committed to an international agreement to prevent mercury exposure, thousands of children were forced to seek their survival in the search for gold.