Self-Employment and Poverty Alleviation: Women’s Work in Artisanal Gold Mines


Heemskerk, Marieke. 2003. “Self-Employment and Poverty Alleviation: Women’s Work in Artisanal Gold Mines.” Human Organization 62 (1): 62-73.

Author: Marieke Heemskerk


Development policy makers increasingly focus on the informal sector as an area to alleviate poverty and promote gender equity. Female self-employment is especially encouraged because higher incomes for women empower them, improve the health of their families, and alleviate poverty in society at large. In this context, development institutions have been urged to increase female participation in artisanal mining. However, knowledge about the gains and costs to women who earn a living in informal, artisanal mines is sparse. This study analyzes women's self-employment in artisanal gold mines in Suriname, South America. The results suggest that if long-term social and health conditions are considered, work in the informal mining sector is not likely to improve the quality of life in the interior of Suriname. The analysis contributes to informal-sector research by focusing on women and on rural regions, two areas of investigation that have received relatively little attention. The author cautions against development policy that narrowly focuses on economic growth and efficiency, and argues that public policy that anticipates long-term health, cultural, and social outcomes has a better chance of being sustainable.

Keywords: artisanal gold mining, gender, informal labor, Maroons, Suriname



“Empirical data from various countries suggest that compared to the incomes of men, women’s earnings disproportionally benefit child nutrition and survival rates… Hence enhancing women’s incomes may do more for poverty relief than promoting higher wages for men.” (62)

“In an effort to remedy the limited economic opportunity for rural women, some international development institutions have recommended that countries encourage female participation in artisanal mining… I will present findings from Suriname that suggest that women’s self-employment in artisanal mining areas is unlikely to alleviate persistent poverty.” (63)

“My data further show that women earned similar wages to men in the same mining-related professions. Moreover, the artisanal mining industry imposed few institutional barriers to female participation: women did not have problems obtaining concessions through the Ndjuka land allocation system, and they were not disadvantaged in access to loans. Neither did I hear about cultural taboos banning women from working in mines…” (67)

“Anthropologists have found that a woman’s bargaining position in the household can strengthen when her contribution to the household income increases relative to the man’s. Stories from Suriname confirm this pattern. Martha (age 32) sold cigarette and other luxuries in the mining area. Her husband disapproved of her work away from the home, but the fact that Martha’s weekly income exceeded his monthly wages overruled these objections." (68)

“Yet women’s labor market participation also brought tension to households. Men felt displaced as breadwinners, while women experiences increased work burdens and felt they were bad mothers and wives. Nduka society reinforced these frustrations by labeling women in the mining area as irresponsible and promiscuous and by mocking men who failed to support their families.” (70)

Topics: Development, Economies, Poverty, Extractive Industries, Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Gender Equity, Health, Households, Livelihoods Regions: Americas, South America Countries: Suriname

Year: 2003

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