African mining, employment and women’s empowerment

Extractive industries can play an important role in economic development in poorer countries, but its effects on gender equality have received little focus. This article discusses findings from recent empirical papers exploring the effect of large-scale mining on women’s empowerment in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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    Sub-Saharan Africa has vast natural resource endowments, including oil, gas and minerals. The extraction of these resources make up a large share of total exports, and the extractive industry sectors receive the most interest from foreign investors. While there is extensive research on how extractive industries affect domestic economic growth and social stability, there has been less focus on how these industries affect women’s economic opportunities. This article focuses on recent evidence on how extractive industries affect women’s livelihoods.

    The question of how natural resource extraction affects women has received some focus from the policy world. The African Mining Vision describes the challenges and opportunities that the African mining sector will face in the coming decades. It describes women as “marginalised stakeholders”, and states that increased economic inequality between men and women is one of many adverse social impacts to be expected. In particular, it argues that mining may disrupt social structures and fail to provide jobs to women in the mines. While there is substantial employment of women in artisanal and small-scale mining, it is generally thought that women have less access to jobs in the large-scale sector. Moreover, environmental degradation might be especially harmful for women. For example, if mining leads to environmental degradation, it will force women to spend more time collecting safe water and food.

    In research conducted over the last five years, I have been trying to examine some these arguments using data from the last 30 years. The research has focused on how large-scale mining operations change (i) access to jobs for men and women, (ii) changes in female empowerment, including gender norms and bargaining power within the household, and access to health care, and lastly (iv) consequences for infant mortality. The research shows that the policy documents, while spelling out real negative consequences, underestimate the potential benefits that the sector can bring to men, women, and children in local communities. Nevertheless, the research does not show that economic opportunities are equal between men and women.

    Labour market outcomes for women

    The first question that we wanted to study is whether the large-scale mining industry generates employment for women, and if so, what type of employment? The large-scale mining sector is generally considered not to generate enough local employment, as it tends to be capital intensive rather than labour intensive. Moreover, the “local multiplier” is thought to be weak – that is, for each job in the large-scale mining industry, few jobs will be created in other sectors. These other sectors can be processing of raw materials, construction, service, retail, etc. Some earlier papers have explored the effects of large-scale mining on local labour markets (e.g. in Peru) and agricultural production (e.g. in Ghana) using similar methods to those used in our study. While we cannot calculate the multiplier in our research study because we do not have access to reliable employment numbers, we test this hypothesis by examining to what extent men and women who live in mining communities shift between sectors of the job market.

    That men and women benefit differently from economic spillovers generated by extractive industries was first suggested by Michael Ross (2008). He examined if oil exports changed men’s and women’s access to employment at a national level. He argues that oil exports reduce women’s participation in the labour market. The reason for this is because oil exports often change the focus of the national economy from manufacturing industries to primary industries, and women tend to be employed more often in the former than the latter. In fact, he argues that as a country starts exporting oil, it will generate employment for men in the oil sector, but reduce the number of available jobs for women. Moreover, as households get richer, women will choose to work less. In the paper, Ross tests these hypotheses using data on all countries in the world over time. The analysis showed that oil exports are associated with lower female labour force participation in the country-wide economy.

    With Andreas Kotsadam, we explore how large-scale mining in sub-Saharan Africa changes local labour markets. So if Ross (2008) focused on aggregate effects of oil exports on women’s access to employment, we focus on the local effects of exploiting the within-country geographical variation in natural resource extraction. We use survey data from the Demographic and Health Surveys of more than 500,000 women living in 29 African countries. We geographically match the village location of these women to the location of large mines. This helps us understand if a woman lived close to a large mine. Over the time period that we studied (three decades), there were many mines that started producing, but also many mines that closed down. This allowed us to analyse the different effects of mine openings and mine closures on women’s and men’s labour market opportunities in the villages and cities around the mining sites.

    The analysis of local labour markets near large mines shows that large mines change the structure of the local economies. This is in contrast to the hypothesis that mines generate little employment and interaction with the local economy. Both women and men who live in communities near the mines are less likely to work in subsistence farming in villages that are located within 20 kilometres from a mine. However, we find that women and men benefitted from very different employment opportunities. Men living in communities close to mines are more likely to work in manual labour, compared with similar men who live far away from mines. Some of these men are working directly in the mining sector. Women living in villages close to mines, on the other hand, are more likely to work in the service and sales sector, compared with women who live in comparable villages further away from the large mines. The service sector jobs range from food industry, entertainment, and hairdressing to transportation.

    Additional important benefits are found: women are more likely to earn cash income for their work and are less likely to paid in kind if they live near large active mines. These women are also more likely to work all year instead of only during the agricultural high season. These findings illustrate that large-scale mining can generate important employment benefits through stimulating secondary industries such as services and sales.

    A few issues of sustainability emerge from the analysis. First, the number of jobs lost within subsistence farming exceeded the level of employment generated within new sectors — skilled manual labour and services. This means that, on average, in villages near mines, men and women are less likely to be working than in comparable villages further away. There are two main hypotheses as to why this would happen: either (i) because of increasing household income, the marginal worker stops working, or (ii) self-employed farmers lose access to farmland due to increasing competition over the land. Unfortunately, the data sources used do not allow us to choose which of these explanations drives the result that we see.

    A second issue of sustainability is that the employment generated disappears at the end of the mining period. We observe a reduction in employment in the years after mine closure. When the jobs stimulated by the mine presence disappears, unemployment rises, as people fail to revert back to agricultural work.

    Gold mining and women’s empowerment

    Ongoing research uses the rapid expansion in gold mining in eight African countries to understand the effect that these large mines have on women’s empowerment, beyond access to employment (Tolonen, 2016a). As local wages for men increase, women run the risk of losing household bargaining power to their husbands, if women’s wages increase less. This spurred me on to explore in more detail how women’s overall well being is affected by mining.

    Contrary to the hypothesis laid out in the African Mining Vision, I find that women’s bargaining power in the household does not change in villages near mines. This might be explained by women’s increased access to financial resources and non-farm employment. Alongside, women have better access to media, such as radio and newspapers, and are more likely to report having listened to family planning programs. These women are also less likely to justify domestic violence, which is an indicator for more female empowerment. These changes are found both among migrant women and women who are born in the mining communities.

    Importantly, in a companion paper (Tolonen, 2016b), I find that despite the risk of pollution, infant mortality rates decrease in the areas near mines. In particular, it decreases in villages that are within 10 kilometres from a mine. The infant mortality rates in these communities were very high at baseline; the mean is above 100 out of 1000 live births. These large reductions in infant mortality observed almost instantly are not likely to be replicated in areas with more moderate levels of infant mortality at baseline.


    The studies summarised in this article highlight complicated relations between the large-scale mining sector and community development. On the one hand, the sector can generate important non-agricultural employment that can transform the lives of women, men and children. On the other hand, such opportunities differ across groups, especially between men and women. Moreover, extractive industries depend on non-renewable resources. The sector will need to tackle the lack of economic opportunities once the mines close down, to generate inclusive and sustainable opportunities at the local level.

    This article describes evidence from the research Kotsadam, Andreas and Anja Tolonen (2016), African Mining, Gender and Local Employment, World Development, vol. 83, July, 325-339 (see also references therein), and draws from more recent, unpublished research on how large-scale mining affects women’s empowerment.


    Ross, Michael L. Oil, Islam, and women. American political science review. 102.01 (2008): 107-123.

    Tolonen, Anja. Local Industrial Shocks and Endogenous Gender Norms. (2016a). Unpublished.

    Tolonen, Anja. Local Industrial Shocks and Infant Mortality. (2016b). Unpublished.

    About the author
    Dr Anja Tolonen is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Barnard College, Columbia University, New York.

    Read the full magazine issue

    Mining for development – Volume 6, Issue 3 (July/August 2017)
    This issue of GREAT Insights brings together a wide range of perspectives, taking mining as a starting point to address more fundamental dimensions of the sustainable development agenda.
    10 July 2017
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