Nairobi — Thousands of children, some as young as eight years old, are working in Tanzania's small-scale gold mines, exposed to numerous health risks, says a report published today.
The international rights group, Human Rights Watch, has called on the government and international community to help end this vice, in which children are exposed to the dangers of mercury poisoning and working in unstable underground mining pits for shifts of up to 24 hours.
The government has been accused of doing very little to curb child employment in dangerous mines, despite the country's strong laws against child labour in mining, one of the worst forms of child labour under the international agreements to which Tanzania is a party.
In the report, poverty is cited as one of the reasons young boys and girls are lured into the gold mines, with many being orphans or lacking basic necessities. The girls are sexually harassed and pressurized to engaged in sex work, putting them at risk of contracting HIV/Aids or other sexually transmitted diseases.
Mercury fumes attack the central nervous system, causing life-long disabilities to children who are exposed during the mixing of mercury with crushed ground ore and the burning of the resulting amalgam to release gold.
In January 2013, Tanzania helped craft a new global treaty, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, in a bid to reduce exposure worldwide. More than 140 governments supported it.
In an interview during an extensive Human Rights Watch investigation, teachers said performance in schools decreased when a mining company opened nearby, with many children skipping class to work at the mines.
One boy in Geita summed up the experience of mining in his life: "It is difficult to combine mining and school. I don't get time to go through tutoring [which takes place on the weekends]. I wonder about the mine, it distracts me…. One day … I fell sick [after mining and missed classes]. I had pain all over my body."
Human Rights Watch said the government and donors should improve child protection by expanding secondary schools and vocational training. The gold industry should also be tasked with the responsibility of ensuring it does not benefit directly or indirectly from unlawful child labour.