Cobalt fuels our smartphones, laptops, electric vehicles. Over 70 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and it’s estimated that almost a quarter of DRC’s cobalt is extracted by artisanal miners.

It’s not officially considered a “conflict mineral,” but faces many similar risks as gold and 3Ts (tin, tungsten, and tantalum), or even diamonds. International media have often spotlighted the poor working conditions in DRC’s artisanal cobalt mines including child labour or environmental and health impacts.

With the green energy revolution, the demand for cobalt rises. It’s projected to grow by 25 times over the next 20 years—and companies are scrambling to assure consumers they have a responsible supply chain. Efforts are underway to support DRC’s artisanal cobalt miners to move towards the legal international market. But to support formalization, we need to invest in approaches that are rooted in gender equality, sustainable development, and peace within artisanal cobalt mining communities.

In 2022, IMPACT launched the Her Security project to investigate how enhancing women’s security in artisanal cobalt and copper mining communities in DRC can improve livelihoods and decrease child labour. This past November, in seven focus groups with women working in the sector, we listened to their views on their work and income, their safety, and perceptions of child labour.

What we heard was clear.

Women Seek to Work in Cobalt Mining

Women are choosing to work in the artisanal cobalt mining sector because it provides higher incomes than any other role in the community. With the income they receive from mining, they can support their families, households, and educate their children.

One woman we spoke to had a law degree. She’s working as a mineral trader after being unable to find any job in her field. She told us she’s happy where she is, earning more than her former fellow students.

These findings mirror our previous research from the gold and 3T sector. Women economically and socially benefit from working in artisanal mining, with the income contributing to household needs and providing women with increased status in the community.

Multiple women reported that they had earned enough from artisanal mining to be able to invest in other income generating activities, such as a hair salon or restaurant services. Others told us that they were able to purchase land and build houses, which they now rent out.

As we’ve found through our AFECCOR project, first in DRC and more recently in Burkina Faso, when miners are able to invest in additional income generating activities outside of mining, it supports economic resiliency and helps shelter them in times of insecurity.

Similarly with other minerals, women take on various roles they have in cobalt mining including digging, washing, and transport, as well as working for the mining cooperatives, or providing restaurant services and selling goods. Women are also present as traders—buying full bags of ore and selling them at depots—or even in sponsoring the excavation of pits. Several women also mentioned they sell empty bags used to haul ore to miners, buying bags in bulk and reselling them individually for a small profit.

While many women we spoke to said that they felt they had equal access to the mine sites, at some they weren’t allowed to work in certain areas due to superstitions or stigmas, and in one—they had to rely on an intermediary after being denied access.

Poverty is the Driver for Child Labour

Despite artisanal mining providing higher incomes, poverty continues to be a significant factor for many families. It’s estimated that 73 percent of DRC’s households live under $1.90 USD per day. According to a 2017 survey, 90 percent of families in the communities around Kolwezi earned less than a $1 USD per day.

While the women we spoke with condemned child labour at the mine sites, they admitted it occurs—attributing it to families needing to support each other to survive. Many told us that mothers don’t choose to put their children in harms way on purpose. If a woman pushes her child into work—it is out of desperation.

One woman told us, “[That mother] is the only person who knows why she must work with her child. No one has the right to judge her.”

These women’s voices echo findings from Bon Pasteur Kolwezi, which supports women to improve livelihoods and children to re-enter school. Their study found that children’s income from mining contributes to household expenses such as food, medical expenses, or school fees. When allowed to keep a portion of their income, 31 percent spent it on food.

It’s clear that poverty is a significant factor pushing children to work in the artisanal cobalt mining communities.

Eliminating Child Labour by Improving Women’s Livelihoods

Any approach to tackle the risks in DRC’s cobalt supply chain—including child labour—needs to take a holistic, bottom-up approach. Solutions and investments need to listen to women’s voices and community needs, while working together with DRC’s civil society and state actors

Child labour has been identified as a major issue. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as banning children from mine sites, as it doesn’t address the root cause of why they are there in the first place. They’ll either find a different mine to work at—or a different sector, one that may make them even more vulnerable.

Our previous research shows that not only are women primary caregivers, but women are also often the main contributors of income—as many as 58 percent of households depended on women as being the primary sources of income. We heard similar stories in the artisanal cobalt sector, with women telling us they couldn’t rely on their husband’s income or needed to earn more after their husbands had moved away for work or died.

Let’s start by looking at how we can improve household livelihoods. If families have enough money to pay for rent, food, school, and other essentials, children won’t need to work.  

Priorities include:

  • Building women’s economic empowerment within the mine site and community
  • Promoting women’s safety and security, including access to services for survivors of violence
  • Supporting access to savings and credit to increase economic security and community solidarity
  • Increasing women’s understanding of their rights
  • Encouraging women’s leadership and their participation in decision making

These priorities must be put in place while addressing other risks in the DRC’s artisanal cobalt supply chain by improving health and safety of miners, ensuring access to legal and viable artisanal mining zones, and enhancing transparency in order to ensure that artisanal miners are not indentured, extorted or subject to corruption. 

Only by listening to DRC’s artisanal cobalt miners—and especially its women—will we get to a place where consumers can truly be assured of a responsible cobalt supply chain.

Photo by Sebastian Meyer/Getty: A miner fills a bag with cobalt at a mine in Kasulo.

Interested in learning more?

What’s the link between women’s security and child labour in DRC’s cobalt mines?

How the Her Security project will support women’s security.

The role of women in artisanal mining and opportunities for their empowerment.

How access to savings and credit supports women’s empowerment and economic resiliency.