By Kady Seguin, IMPACT’s Policy and Research Director

In recent years, more attention has been placed on understanding the barriers and opportunities women face in the artisanal gold mining sector. However, there is a noticeable knowledge gap when it comes to the role of women in the often-illicit trade and transport of gold.

While it’s easy to hypothesize that men make up the majority of gold traders and smugglers, a recent media analysis by IMPACT highlights how women may be taking on these roles more often than we realized.

The Gendered Dimensions of Mineral Supply Chains

Mining is traditionally viewed as a male-dominated sector, though research in the last decade has highlighted the important roles women play in artisanal mining sector. While in some gold mining sites there is limited participation or women are less visible, at other mine sites you can find teams comprised solely of women. Though the prevalence of discrimination and gender inequality in the sector often undervalues women’s work and prevents them from reaping the same financial benefit as men, for many women, the artisanal mining sector presents an opportunity to escape poverty and further themselves economically.

Beyond the mine site, fewer women tend to participate in the flow of buying and selling that occurs locally or beyond borders—though, there are exceptions, with IMPACT’s researchers identifying women traders in some artisanal mining communities. Gold trading is a capital intense business, and women face larger hurdles when it comes to financial inclusion, including opening a bank account or accessing financing. Women traders at times face risks to their physical and economic security—such as through collusion between other traders and law enforcement officers.

The apparent lack of women present in gold trading mirrors trends in other illicit trafficking supply chains, such as the drug trade – where the UNODC’s 2018 World Drug Report noted that 90% of individuals coming into contact with the criminal justice systems of 98 countries were men.

Evidence from Kenya

However, while men may feature more prominently in the gold smuggling trade, a quick review of recent cases in India indicate that women may be playing a more substantial role, notably via Kenya. Though Kenya is not a large producer of gold, it has played a key transit role for other larger producers in East Africa, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

News reports have documented dozens of women being caught at various Indian airports attempting to smuggle gold from Kenya. This is often to avoid paying taxes required when importing gold. In November 2021, 30 women were apprehended by Kenyan customs officials, in conjunction with the Kenyan Revenue Authority, carrying 4.88 kg of gold. The women were suspected of being part of a smuggling ring that moved both gold and gold jewelry. A month later, another 18 women were caught by Indian customs officials carrying 3.85 kg of undeclared gold, which had been hidden away in various food and clothing items. Three Kenyan women were also detained in Mumbai, following attempts to smuggle almost a kg of gold. The women were transiting through Doha. Other cases prior to 2021 point to a potential pattern.

Women Gold Smugglers in the Middle East

Kenya is only one destination with documented cases of women gold smugglers.

Women smuggling gold into India from the Middle East appears to have been on the radar of Indian officials for quite some time—especially following a hike in customs duty owed on gold imports. This, along with a number of gold policies in India, have served to significantly incentivize smuggling – as documented in IMPACT’s report A Golden Web: How India Became One of the World’s Largest Gold Smuggling Hubs.

Over the past couple of years, women have been caught smuggling gold from Dubai—consistently cited as a destination for gold of suspicious origin—into several Indian airports, including Delhi Indira Ghandi International Airport, Rajiv Gandhi International Airport, Bengalu Airport, and Pune Airport. While some individuals carry relatively large amounts of gold, other networks rely on using a number of passengers to carry smaller quantities which can be easier to hide in food and beverages, clothing, or on the body. Jewelry is another vehicle through which gold can often enter undeclared to avoid paying taxes.  

Other cases reveal larger-scale activity with possible links to organized crime, such as a woman who was stopped in the UK’s Heathrow airport last January with 650,000 GBP worth of gold bars in her suitcase, headed to India.

It’s worth noting that while India is the primary destination for gold in the cases cited above, this is mostly due to the prominence these cases are given by India news outlets. Women may be playing a significant role smuggling gold elsewhere—we may just not know about it.

Applying a Gender Lens to Gold Smuggling

These examples indicate that women may be playing a more active role in gold smuggling than what is typically thought. But understanding the true scale of their participation, the specific roles they play and agency afforded to them, as well as what drives them to enter the business, requires more research.

Though a fundamentally different commodity and business model, narco-trafficking offers some similarities and may offer some insight. Women have been found to play a minor but often fundamental role at all stages of the supply chain—from production, transport, and distribution. These roles are highly gendered, and while some women are motivated to become involved in the transportation, buying and selling of narcotics to fulfill more traditional roles of supporting their children and dependents to meet more basic needs, others are driven by the power, influence and status that they may achieve through these roles. The strategies invoked by women in the drug trade are also often quite distinct from those of men – which is important when considering policy and enforcement strategies.

With this in mind, we can see how involvement in gold smuggling may on the one hand an important source of economic advancement for women, with important derivative benefits for social status and mobility. On the other, the illicit gold trade can be a risky business for anyone, with gender inequality impacting and exacerbating risks for women. Further, because the trade operates in the shadows, there is little legal recourse in the event that women experience forms of intimidation, theft, gender-based violence or other threats to their security. In some countries, law enforcement and authorities are involved in gold smuggling, and may themselves engage in predatory behavior.

To be effective, policy and project interventions tackling the illicit trade of gold need to address both women and men. To do so, we need to have more in-depth understanding of the ways in which gender shapes and influences their experiences, and motivates them to engage in smuggling in the first place. Otherwise, its likely that these efforts will continue to center the experiences of men, which by and large will only push women further into the shadows.