Women in underground mining: Going beyond policy in South Africa

Published: 12/04/2014

I found this news article recently (which I quote in its entirety in blue below) and was fascinated by the question it poses and seeing things through Dr Govender eyes. I wonder if the research has progressed and if there is an update. I plan to contact the CSMI (Centre for Sustainability in Mining & Industry) soon to find out.

I also wonder if there is a difference with other countries. How is the situation in other cultures were women have been working underground for longer?

“23 APR 2013
In a move that promised greater gender equality, women were allowed in the 1990s to enter the traditionally all-male world of underground work in South African mines. But it is time the industry and authorities reflect and take stock of the consequences of this decision thereby informing the way forward.

According to Dr Moreshnee Govender, programme manager in Occupational Health and Safety at Wits University’s Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry (CSMI), women face some particular dangers when working underground, many of which are not openly discussed with a view to a sustainable solution.

Among the more chilling of these was the rape and murder of a woman mineworker last year whilst working underground. Less dramatic but equally important issues relate to the suitability of technology (including protective equipment and underground facilities), gender attitudes, including work organisation and design which impact on the health and safety of these workers.

“There is a need for an open forum that includes not just management, the unions and government, but also women mine workers themselves along with academics and researchers,” said Dr Govender, “to reflect on our collective experience in the last decade since women have been working underground. This sort of forum will help us to ask the right questions and plan the best way forward towards sustainable solutions within our context.”

Complex process

Since the law changed and the Mining Charter committed to employ more women, their share of employment in this sector has grown from less than 3% to over 10% overall. Under pressure from high unemployment, many have opted for those underground jobs previously performed only by men.

Mechanisation – ripe for discussion

After completing a Diploma in Occupational Safety and Health in Practice at the Swedish Institute for Working Life, she became inspired by the prospect of finding solutions through a fuller appreciation of technology and design re-engineering. So she followed this up with Masters degree in Ergonomics, also in Sweden.

Looking ahead at issues increasingly likely to be tackled by the underground mining sector, she highlighted mechanisation as ripe for discussion. “Mechanised mining is a big issue currently,” she said. “You would think that this could lead to the involvement of more women in mining, as it suggests less manually demanding work. It would be a good area for an open forum to engage upon.”

“We have an excellent opportunity to be at the forefront not only in the research and development of appropriate technologies for women that support them in their pioneering new roles in the challenging underground setting, but in publicising our experience as a country in truly addressing equity in the workplace,” she said. “This would not only benefit women but men as well and will be a valuable experience to be shared with the rest of the continent, and even other parts of the world.”

But the starting point is yet to be reached, where women are given a voice among the other industry stakeholders, in a forum where experiences can be articulated and constructive directions can be forged to be relevant at the coal face. Dr Govender is working to make this a reality.”

Dr Moreshnee Govender MBBCh MSc
Dr Govender is currently a Senior Lecturer at the Wits School of Public Health of the University of the Witwatersrand. She is involved with both post- and under-graduate teaching in the School covering the areas of Hospital Management. Her research interest includes Health Technology Management, Occupational health and safety.

Link to story online