By Sayoh Kamara
Moves to save and protect the Sierra Leonean child from the hazards of child labour especially in the mining sector have been at the centre stage of governments’ policies for a very long time, but there seems no end in sight to this menace. This is because the socio-economic situations over time and at present provide no better alternatives to keep children from the arduous engagements or keep their parents off the hook of poverty and its attendant ramifications. In some instances, the boys and girls go for it on their own, just to make ends meet where there is or are no means to an end.
The fact of the matter is that there are no tangible remedies to this problem. There are numerous legislations and policies in place to address this menace, but they are mere pretentious decorations put in words and on paper to beautify the shelves. There is standing legislation prohibiting the use of child labour in mining, particularly in artisanal mining. In many respects, children knowingly undertake labour in artisanal mining to supplement the incomes of their poor rural families and this includes work to pay for their education. That is why child labour is most common in alluvial mining activities involving the extraction of diamond, gold and coltan.
Bashiru Njaojah, 12 years old, and Usain Njaojah, 10 years old, are siblings living at Peleywahun village, 3 miles from the bank of the Sewa River in the Baoma Chiefdom in Bo District. Baoma Chiefdom is diamondiferous and has over the decades attracted miners from all over West Africa. It is said to have a very high concentration of descendants of Nigerian Hausas, Malian Bambaras and Guinean Mandingoes.
Baoma Chiefdom is “the most cosmopolitan settlement in the entire Bo District. It is a mixed bag of diverse cultures and traditions,” says Chief Bashiru Tomboyekeh, younger brother of Section Chief Sidikie Tomboyekeh.
Lately, there has been an upsurge in mining for gold, and this has attracted so many women. Gold mining is not as difficult as mining for diamond. The process is soft but yet still labour-intensive. Bashiru and Usain are in classes 6 and 5 respectively. They work on the Sewa River bank alongside their mother and elder siblings every day of the week. Both are attending the Islamic Call Society Primary School (ICS) at Peleywahun Village. They have an elder brother, Sheku, and an elder sister, Umu. Sheku has dropped out of school and gone into active diamond mining as a diver. Umu also dropped out of school two years ago after her Basic Entrance Certificate Examination (BECE). Both say their mother could not afford school fees and other charges, so they decided to support their mother to fend and support their two younger brothers to get educated.
The parents of Bashiru and Usain are originally from Gbinima village about 3 kilometers from Peleywahun. They said their parents relocated a couple of years ago to Peleywahun because of fear that their original village Gbinima could be sitting on a huge pile of diamonds and may one day be conceded to a mining company. As of now, the people of Gbinima bury their dead at Peleywahun for the same reason. Bashiru and Usain leave school at 2:30 pm every school day and go straight to the riverside to meet their mother, Isata Moiguah, who is 35 years old. Madam Isata lost her husband three years ago. They eat and wash by the riverside; they go home late in the evening at about 7:00 pm.
The workload at the mining site is routinely distributed. Bashiru and Usain are responsible for bailing the sand deposit from Sheku’s diving to the mother’s sieve which is mounted on two sticks on the edge of the river bank. The boys will turn the sand from rubber containers and when the sieve is loaded, the mother routinely pours water on to the sand over a thick, mass of carpet fur. The fur accordingly restrains the sand dust from the running water and sand. This process is done continuously for like one hour. The mother then folds the carpet fur, squeezes the water out in a shining bowl, drains the water from the bowl and empties the content on the carpet fur into the bowl. The contents from the carpet fur are a little shiny dust-like particles and that is the gold dust.
According to Madam Isata, mostly, it takes a whole day for them to gather a kilogramme of gold dust which they sell for Le. 60, 000 (approximately $6). It is this cash that Madam Isata keeps to take care of her household as a single parent.
Isata family epitomizes the life and earnings of hundreds of rural families living near or along mining areas in Sierra Leone. What is evident in these circumstances are that dire economic conditions of families drive the need for additional hands to augment income generation.
The problem of addressing child labour in a concertedly-all-acceptable manner is as chaotic as having a policy that fits with time, especially a policy that has to do with stopping child labour in the mining sector.
When the current government came to power, the first Minister of Mines and Mineral Resources, Dr. Morie Komba Manyeh, was quick to undertake “a holistic review” of the Mineral Policy 2003 to put it in tandem with present day realities. He commissioned the review and later in November 2018 launched the Sierra Leone Minerals Policy 2018, stating that “it is comprehensive and has international, continental and regional initiatives relevant to the mineral sector governance and management in Sierra Leone.”
Barely, a year following the launch, Dr. Manyeh was sacked and his replacement, Foday Rado Yokie, quickly challenged certain aspects of the policy, referring to them as “mundane and not in touch with realities and needs of Sierra Leone.” Some of these aspects have to do with taxation and mining concessions. This has put on stay, the implementation of any effective mines and mineral policy and which, concomitantly is affecting child labour issues as far as artisanal mining is concerned.
But even with a policy effectively in place, there is still a huge lacuna. Women involvement in artisanal mining is not controlled, and no policy since 2003 has had any attempt at reviewing that aspect. Women need no license to go into artisanal mining, especially for gold and diamond. For them, it is just a source of earning their daily bread, and because they mostly control the children, they carry them along in this search of their daily bread.
But there is a policy statement in the Sierra Leone Minerals Policy 2018 which seems to suggest that gender issues specifically related to mining and mineral development were largely ignored in previous mining policies and existing laws and regulations. It noted that differences in gender roles and enduring structural impediments at local and community levels where men and women have traditional roles continue to challenge and frustrate national gender equality interventions and therefore require practical interventions” (Sierra Leone Minerals Policy 2018: 3.11.4).
Controversially, a Government policy statement also in the 2018 policy notes, “Government will ensure that all policies relating to the sector fully incorporate strategies and actions that respect fair treatment of men and women and enhance gender equality and pay,” emphasizing that “…such policies will ensure that vulnerabilities unique to women are addressed through support systems at the Ministry of Gender, Social Welfare and Children Affairs as well as other social service delivery agencies.” It is such controversies and policy discordance that make regulation and implementation almost impossible in ensuring no child labour in the mining sector.
“The use of child labour in mining in Sierra Leone is unacceptable and illegal.” This is an affirmative Government Policy Statement. However, the capacity of law enforcement agencies and social welfare interventions need to be strengthened, enforce child protection laws and provide support services to children who are victims of child labour; but not forgetting their parents and persons caught in violation should be held criminally liable.
However, these difficulties in addressing child labour are not akin to the mining sector alone. It cuts across all sectors. The issue of child labour is an eyesore in urban communities, especially in Freetown, the capital city. Policies and regulations have long been in place, but they are inadequate, poorly monitored, and the system is compromised. Child labour continues to thrive in the mining sector because of government’s lack of capacity to implement, monitor and punish violators. In the age of free quality education, the use of child labour in mining is unacceptable but policies put in place to prevent it are ineffective, so the fundamental human rights of children continue to be violated and their development continuously hindered leading to lifelong physical or psychological damage.