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

By Heemskerk, Marieke | Human Organization, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview
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Self-Employment and Poverty Alleviation: Women's Work in Artisanal Gold Mines


Heemskerk, Marieke, Human Organization


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.

Key words: artisanal gold mining, gender, informal labor, Maroons, Suriname

This paper is about women who work in artisanal goldmines in Suriname, South America. The analysis responds to increasing policy interest in developing the informal sector, which shows promise for strengthening gender equity and alleviating poverty in rural areas of the developing world (Browne 1996, 2001; Ferdinand 2001; Kantor 2000). My main question is: Will promoting women's work in informal, artisanal gold mines improve the quality of life of Suriname's rural poor? To answer this question, I compare how women benefit from mining with the price they pay for working in the mining area.

"Informal" labor has been defined in numerous ways, but generally refers to money-generating activities that are largely unrecorded and unregulated by national governments (Harding and Jenkins 1989; Portes, Castells, and Benton 1989). The archetypical informal job is easy to enter, labor intensive, small scale, family owned, and low tech. The bulk of informal-sector workers are self-employed, performing low or unskilled labor as street vendors, cleaners, gofers, shoeshine boys, and sex workers, among other professions. Policy makers have long been either hostile or indifferent to people on the sidelines of the official economy because these people tend to evade taxes, are difficult to control, and often operate illegally. As the social and economic potentials of the informal sector become better understood, the international development community has begun to encourage and assist its workers (Bangasser 2000).

At the same time, policy interventions aimed at improving labor market conditions have increasingly targeted women, for several reasons. First, earning an independent income can improve the well-being of women and their families by strengthening their social and economic autonomy (Massiah 1999; Momsen 1993; Safa 1995). Second, empirical data from various countries suggest that compared to the incomes of men, women's earnings disproportionally benefit child nutrition and survival rates (Kennedy and Haddad 1994; Kennedy and Peters 1992; Lamontagne, Engle, and Zeitlin 1998; World Bank 2001). Hence enhancing women's incomes may do more for poverty relief than promoting higher wages for men. Furthermore, despite increased female labor market participation, women remain more likely than men to perform low-paid unskilled labor and less likely to obtain top-level positions and wages (Beneria and Feldman 1992; Howes and Singh 1995; Standing 1999). A greater level of gender equality is desirable because evidence suggests that it "strengthens countries' abilities to grow, to reduce poverty, and to govern effectively" (World Bank 2001:1).

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