KAKAMEGA, Kenya – When gold was discovered on Alice Shilindwa’s land, she saw an opportunity to finally provide for her children. The family had been scraping by on subsistence farming while her husband was alive, and it was only after his death that Shilindwa, 45, found out from prospectors that the soil on their farm in Shitoli village contained gold. She decided to mine it to pay for food and school fees for her seven children.
But she quickly realized she wouldn’t be able to mine the gold. “As a woman, I am not allowed to do mining nor approach the site; this is according to the cultural norms of the community,” Shilindwa says.
According to the traditions of the Waidakho and Waisukha subtribes of the Luhya community, women who have not reached menopause are not allowed to go near a mining site as they are considered a bad omen. Menopausal women can get close to a gold mine – although never inside it – and are given lighter duties such as winnowing and separating the gold from the dirt.
“I was forced to lease my land to a man at a small fee for the mining to take place,” Shilindwa says. She was paid a lump sum when the agreement was made, she says, and gets no share of the profits whenever the gold from her land is sold.
Gold was first discovered in Kakamega in the early 1930s, and since then more than 655,000 tons have been extracted in the county, bringing in more than 4 billion Kenyan shillings (around $40 million) to the region. The area is currently in the grip of a gold rush, after the U.K. firm Acacia Mining announced that one of its Kakamega mines had dug up a small find of high-grade gold.
Any woman with access to land containing gold – a rarity in a country where only 1 percent of women own land individually – has the potential to make a decent living by mining the precious metal.
But in some parts of Kenya, cultural prejudices deny many of those women the right to benefit from the resources on their own land. While the country’s 2010 constitution granted women rights to own and control property and land, in some parts of the country traditional law still takes precedence.
Undermined by Cultural Norms
Even as its population sits on gold-rich land, Kakamega remains one of the poorest counties in Kenya, with 49.2 percent of residents living below the poverty line.
One of the reasons, says Kakamega resident Lucy Lichoti, 53, is that the money men make from gold mining is rarely fed back to their families or their community.
Lichoti’s husband disappears from home after selling the gold he has mined and returns only when he has no money left. It’s the same with most men in the area, she says.
“My husband earns about $500 a month, after deducting all expenses. But as his wife, I have never seen that money.”
Some men are also frustrated by the effects that cultural beliefs are having on life in Kakamega. John Lisamusia, 51, a miner in Rosterman, an area named after the English gold-mining company that operated there until the 1950s, says the kinds of beliefs that discriminate against women miners have slowed the benefits of development projects in the area, resulting in high levels of unemployment and illiteracy.
“We have seen many people being buried alive while looking for gold, but none of those accidents were associated with women. How can menstruation be associated with accidents?” Lisamusia says. “It is just a technique men use to keep women away from this cash-making activity.”
Mercy Malala, 60, a businesswoman living in Isulu village, has firsthand experience of how cultural norms can hold back women in Kenya as they work toward equal rights and economic autonomy. She owns three gold-mining shafts, but can’t use any of them. Instead, she makes her living trading fruit and vegetables at a nearby market.
“Women are hard-working people, but their efforts continue being undermined by baseless cultural norms that favor only men in our society,” she says.