How migrants are changing the male face of Ghana’s gold mines
Migration is allowing more and more women to become big players in an industry normally seen as men’s work
The story of Aisha Huang, the ‘Galamsey Queen’, has captured Ghana’s imagination. She has been charged with illegal gold mining using a highly destructive process locally known as galamsey.
Galamseyers operate at a small scale and shallow depths, using excavators and bulldozers – often supplied by Chinese investors – to churn up gold-bearing soil from farms and riverbeds. The soil is then ‘washed’ in rivers, with mercury and other harmful chemicals used to retrieve gold dust and nuggets. The resulting environmental devastation is difficult to understate.
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Huang is Chinese. The media has asked how Huang was able to return to Ghana after being deported after a previous charge of illegal mining in 2017, and whether corruption played a role.
But this ignores an important, broader angle: the emerging role of women in the largely male-dominated Ghanaian mining sector.
I work with the MIDEQ (‘Migration for Development & Equality’) project, and our research shows that women are migrating independently between countries in the Global South and doing male-dominated work such as mining and construction. It is evident that Chinese women are moving to Ghana for better job opportunities in mining – challenging the assumption that mining is for men.
Ghanaian women married to Chinese men with higher income use their citizenship and their partnerships to get into mining
Galamsey is physically dangerous and capital intensive – all things are widely thought to be in men’s domain in Ghana. Thus, women have been limited to low-status work such as panning, transporting ore and water, and washing. Additionally, female mining workers are often exploited and abused. Consequently, they are usually seen as victims of men in mining and therefore in need of help. Moreover, programmes designed to address problems in mining are centred on men.
The mid-2000s saw more and more Chinese migrants arriving in Ghana to engage in artisanal small-scale mining, motivated largely by the rise in gold prices in 2008. By 2005, an estimated 50,000 miners had come to Ghana from China.
Women make up only about 2% of the Chinese migrants involved in mining in Ghana. But their impact and engagement in the mining sector is significant: research and news media reports show that male dominance in the mining sector is dissipating.
It’s not only Chinese women who are challenging that dominance. Our unpublished research shows that Ghanaian women married to Chinese men with higher income use their citizenship and their partnerships to get into mining.
In Ghana, citizens can get an official licence to do small-scale mining. These women use their Chinese husbands’ money to legally acquire mining concessions. They own concessions or mining sites and have employed workers to work on the mining sites – creating jobs for others. They pay taxes to the government as well as royalties to local authorities.
Both Chinese female immigrants and Ghanaian female citizens in the mining business have had some form of upward mobility. They have taken on breadwinning roles and are able to make economic decisions concerning their lives, businesses and households.
While Huang’s story has received negative press because her mining was illegal, her visibility as a woman has prompted a shift in the way that Ghanaians see the economic and political power of independent female migrants from another Global South country.
Such women may have different economic motivations to men for migrating. In Huang’s case, her political and economic privilege allowed her to own and control illegal mining concessions. She was able to become a major player and decision-maker in the mining sector.
In 2017, the Ghanian government issued an ultimatum to illegal gold miners in the country, promising to end galamsey ‘once and for all’. However, despite initial optimism the practice has persisted. Given the environmental damage that illegal mining does and the government’s continuing efforts to stop it, it is vital to understand the unique roles and motivations that migrants and local women play.
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