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Offer: Why Diamonds aren't all girls' best friends

FRIDAY FILE: More than 100 million women worldwide wear diamond engagement rings, but at what cost to women in mining communities in Southern Africa and elsewhere?

By Masum Momaya

As another summer ‘engagement ring season’ comes to a close in the northern hemisphere, jewelers in countries such as Germany, India, Japan and the US are calculating profits from sales of rings bought for women as a promise of marriage.

Women’s desire to have engagement rings is, in part, the result of decades of aggressive marketing efforts from DeBeers, a Johannesburg-based cartel that coined the phrase “a diamond is forever” in 1947. In the last 50 years, the conglomerate’s advertising campaigns have implanted diamonds into cultures worldwide as pricey - and priceless - symbols of commitment.[1]

Once reserved for the upper class, as more diamonds were discovered and mined, and DeBeers gained control over greater shares of them, it and its affiliated retailers began selling the ‘ice’ to middle-class masses in countries without an existing tradition of engagement rings.

Moreover, even as marriage rates began to decline in Japan, the US and elsewhere, DeBeers conceived of and marketed the ‘right-hand ring,’ encouraging women to buy their own diamonds as symbols of their success and independence.

Today, it is estimated that more than 100 million women worldwide wear diamond rings valued at tens of thousands of US dollars. But what do these diamonds cost women in diamond mining countries, especially in Southern Africa?

The ‘Pretty Pebble’ in Southern Africa

The first diamond was found in South Africa in 1867 by a boy who noticed a mooi klip (‘pretty pebble’) and gave it to his sister to play with. When a neighbor asked the children’s mother if he could buy it, she responded that she couldn’t possibly charge him for a stone. He took it and sold it to a travelling salesman, who was ridiculed for claiming he had purchased a diamond.[2]

His claim was correct, and this discovery brought prospectors from Europe, Australia and the US to Southern Africa. By 1888, the first working mines were established on the Orange River of the Namibia-South Africa border, and the DeBeers diamond mining and trading company was born.

Today, Southern Africa[3] is home to 65% of the world’s USD 13 billion of annual rough diamond production. Investigative journalists have documented the bloody nature of diamond mining throughout the continent.

Specifically, mines in Angola, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are or have been under control of rebel groups who employ forced labor and use profits to fund arms and conflict.

In 2003, to prevent diamond sales from financing rebel movements aimed at undermining legitimate government, or “blood diamonds,” the UN General Assembly launched the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS). 75 countries currently participate in the process.

Human Rights Watch and other groups have pointed out, KPCS does not account for diamonds mined in the context of serious or everyday human rights abuses. So, for example, while diamonds from Angola were once banned due to their role in financing the Civil War there, once the war ended, Angolan diamonds began to be certified as “clean” even though there is ample evidence that the diamond mining industry there is still characterized by much greed, exploitation and violence.

In contrast, governments more closely oversee mines in Botswana, Namibia[4] and South Africa,[5] but wages are low and working conditions remain dangerous.

Global sales of diamond jewelry amount to more than USD 72 billion annually, yet most miners earn the equivalent of less than one USD per day.

In particular, women living and working in mining areas face numerous adversities.

Women Miners Face Informal Sector Challenges

More than one million people work in diamond mining in Southern Africa. Approximately 17.5% are women, who bear disproportionate social, economic and environmental impacts of mining.

As miners, women work primarily in artisanal mining, constituting more than half of Southern Africa’s artisanal miners. In contrast to industrial miners, who use technology to blast away layers of earth and excavate deep into the surface, artisanal miners use their bare hands and small tools to dig and sift through shallow mud, sand and gravel to find diamonds.

Artisanal mining is labor intensive and part of the informal sector, outside legal and regulatory frameworks and with few safety protections in spite of harsh and dangerous conditions.

Like their counterparts who work as domestic workers, home-based workers and sex workers, women artisanal miners often do not have resources to purchase equipment needed to do their jobs safely, have few means of recourse when made ill, abused or exploited and lack women’s toilets and organized access to childcare while working. Many are compelled to leave their children home alone while working or to bring them to mining sites, where they are exposed to lung-crippling dust and safety hazards.

Also, because artisanal mining relies on the lottery of finding diamonds to be paid, it is not a reliable source of income, leaving women perpetually vulnerable to poverty.

Women who do not work directly as miners but live in mining areas also experience impacts.

Indirect Impacts

Throughout Southern Africa, mining companies swept up land once used for agriculture and displaced entire communities, offering no compensation to the primarily women farmers who worked it for a living. Even in mining areas where farmland is still available, women who attempt to supplement the income of their male mining partners through farming[6] find that mining pollutes resources, uses large quantities of water and damages arability.

Additionally, women who work as cleaners and secretaries in industrial mines often work without safety equipment and experience gender-specific violence such as sexual harassment and rape, especially in mines that are militarized.

Sex work has flourished in mines with solely male workers ever since prospectors came the region in the 19th century.[7] Public health studies have found that accessing condoms and negotiating condom use is difficult for sex workers in mining communities, and rates of STD, HIV and AIDS transmission are high.[8]

Women whose partners migrate to work in mines are left as single heads of households, sometimes without remittances.[9] And, many migrant male partners are infected with HIV and AIDS during their work in mines.[10]

Lost Tax Revenue

Finally, a lesser-known indirect impact is lost tax revenue. Many diamonds are smuggled due to their size and concentration of value. Also, even in ‘legitimate’ arrangements, mining corporations operate with substantial tax breaks. In some cases, corrupt politicians receive inducements in exchange for mining operations.

For example, in Zimbabwe, the national treasury receives virtually no revenue from diamond mines. Zimbabwe’s reserve bank estimates that more than USD 500 million worth of diamonds are smuggled annually.

Thus, in Zimbabwe and elsewhere, large amounts of revenue that could fill national coffers, be reinvested into the local economy and fund health, education and social welfare programs are lost. Since these care responsibilities fall to women, they work harder and longer to compensate for services cut, or never provided, by their governments.

So how can these impacts be addressed?

Women Miners Organizing

Women have been organizing for more just economic arrangements, access to jobs and conscious collection and distribution of tax revenues.

In late 1970s, after working in South African mines for most of their lives, women nearing retirement age in Lesotho formed the Liqhobong Diamond Cooperative. They negotiated a fair trade agreement to be paid a value-added payment of 15% of profits on diamond sales. Living conditions near this mining camp were still poor - shabby housing, no electricity, sparse clean water and marginal sanitary conditions – but the cooperative members earned more for the diamonds they found.

In 1996, a multinational corporation bought out the cooperative.

Also, women assistants and ancillary staff in South African mines have been organizing to bring safety and regulation to the mining industry and facilitate formal jobs for women in industrial mines. In 1997, they worked with their transnational counterparts to form the International Women and Mining Network (RIMM).

In part due to lobbying by RIMM, women began being trained and certified with a green ticket, or full blasting license. This has opened up new job opportunities although not necessarily changed working conditions in industrial mines.

In Botswana, the women-led, celebrity-endorsed Diamond Empowerment Fund pushed the government in Botswana to use the tax revenue from diamond mining -more than $3.3 billion or a third of the country’s GDP - to subsidize primary education.[11]

But will this be enough to account for more than a century of poverty, exploitation and violence associated with diamond mining in the region?

Tom Zoellner, a journalist who journeyed through Africa to explore diamond mining and trade, confirms, “when you see places where a lot of the diamond mining is done, you see that it’s brought not wealth or prosperity or peace to these countries, but rather poverty, chaos and warfare.”[12]

Jana Shoemaker contributed to research for this Friday File.

[1] Kanfer, Stefan. The Last Empire: De Beers, Diamonds, and the World (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993), p. 6.

[2] Zoellner, Tom. The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire (New York: Picador, 2006), p. 99-100.

[3] Here, ‘Southern Africa’ refers countries that are part of the Southern African Development Community, including Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and also the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania, which are typically considered to be in Central Africa and East Africa, respectively.

[4] All diamonds from Botswana and Namibia pass through the DeBeers corporation.

[5] AWID interview with Kathryn Sturman of the South African Institute for International Affairs

[6] Monica Gagnon. Artisanal Diamond Mining and Gender: An Overview. May 2009. Online:

[7] John M. Luiz and Leon Roets. On Prostitution, STDs and the Law in South Africa: The State as Pimp. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 18.1, 2000.

[8] Rispel, L.C. et al. Evaluating and HIV and AIDS Community Training Partnership Program in five diamond mining communities in South Africa. Evaluation and Program Planning 33 (2010) 394-402 at 394.

[9] AWID Interview with Pulane Lefoka, Senior Lecturer at the National University of Lesotho

[10] John M. Luiz and Leon Roets. On Prostitution, STDs and the Law in South Africa: The State as Pimp. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 18.1, 2000.

[11] Judith Imel Van Allen. Free Women: Kinship, Capitalism, Gender and The State. Dissertation for D.Phil University of California, Berkeley. Fall 2002. UMI Number: 3082442 at 239 (Van Allen).

[12] Zoellner, p. 70.

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