"They carry weights heavier than their own weight, climb into unstable shafts and touch and inhale mercury, one of the most toxic substances on earth."
(Juliane Kippenberg, Senior Children's Rights Researcher, Human Rights Watch).
Children are a vulnerable group of individuals in need of protection, but more often than not, in many countries around the world, they fall prey to unspeakable violations, including economic exploitation through child labor and sexual abuse. Child labor, a violation of the rights of the child, happens in plain sight in many countries, especially in developing countries or so-called "emerging economies" where people make money by exploiting the services of children. A case in point is Mali - a west African country where child labor is common practice in gold mines.
According to Human Rights Watch, Mali's mines produce gold with child labor. Children in Mali, besides digging mining shafts and working underground, carry heavy weights of ore and work with toxic mercury, in a process aimed at separating gold from ore.
The report also reveals that many children involved in hazardous work in Mali do not go to school because education is inaccessible and unavailable for children. Health care is also limited (with one physician per 20,000 patients), despite the health problems that result from mining.
A video posted on the YouTube channel of Human Rights Watch better captures the plight of children in Mali.
The Republic of Mali is a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which it ratified on 20 September 1990. Despite the country's obligation under international law to protect children, guarantee the right to education and ensure "decent work" within its borders, children are continuously being exploited.
It's a shame that Mali is reportedly Africa's third largest gold producer (after South Africa and Ghana), yet the government is unable and/or unwilling to make education accessible and available to its children. This is typical in a continent where corruption is endemic and plays a major role in widespread poverty and desperation that has forced families to victimize children under hazardous conditions in the name of supplementing family income.
It remains to be seen whether someone with the power to change things in Mali would read Human Rights Watch's recently published report titled, "A Poisonous Mix: Child Labor, Mercury and Artisanal Gold Mining in Mali" (in pdf) and take action to restore the childhood and rights of Mali's exploited children. The report contains maps, disturbing pictures and recommendations which the government of Mali ought to take seriously.
According to Human Rights Watch, between 20,000 to 40,000 children work in Mali's artisanal gold mines. Many start working at about six years old.
Human Rights Watch acknowledges (page 6 of the report) that the government of Mali has taken some important steps to protect children's rights. However, a lot more needs to be done. A viable economy cannot be built on the backs of children.