Politics of Poverty

Multinationals are no-shows for gender equality

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Fily Cissokho uses a sluice to separate gold particles from crushed rock, in her family's compound in Bambaraya, Senegal. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America

The UN Women’s Share Fair would have been a positive step towards gender justice. If only the companies had shown up.

Maria Ezpeleta is the Gender Advisor for Oxfam America’s Extractive Industries team.

A few weeks ago, I got on a plane headed for Nairobi. Never having been to Kenya, I was excited to set off for new territory.

Twenty hours later, I laughed when a few Kenyan women sitting next to me broke into jubilant songs of praise as the plane touched Nairobi soil. “Ah, Kenya, my beautiful organic, natural Kenya,” a woman sang into my ear.

This was going to be good, I thought.

So there I was in Nairobi, crisp in an airplane-creased suit, headed to the UN Women’s Regional Share Fair on Gender Equality in the Extractive Industries (EI).

For someone like me who works on gender issues, an event like this can be intoxicating. Three days of unpacking one of the most pressing (and the most difficult) issues to tackle in the oil, gas, and mining industry.

The event boasted almost 400 participants, including representatives of civil society, governments, and private sector. Together we set out to explore questions like: how do we address systemic gender bias in the industry? How do we ensure women’s empowerment within the sector? Can we have honest conversations about the negative impacts that EI projects can have on communities, and especially on the lives of women?

This is not a new conversation. There is quite a bit of work documenting  how entrenched gender inequality in oil, gas, and mining continues to undermine the development potential of the sector, and even more on how women are usually the worst off in terms of shouldering the negative impacts of EI projects.

Time and again we hear about how EI activities have led to poorly planned resettlement, environmental pollution, increased gender-based violence, rises in risk to HIV/AIDs – all of which disproportionately put women’s rights at risk. We also know that women tend to be excluded from EI consultation and decision-making processes, which again, tips the balance of power further from women.

Companies boast about community development efforts, such as building schools and setting up watering points, and while these are all well and good for meeting some of women’s practical needs, such efforts do very little in the way of addressing structural gender inequalities – the socio-cultural and business norms that prevent women from having greater agency over their lives and engaging in decision-making processes. Gender blindness in the industry continues have the net effect of violating women’s rights and further eroding the social position of women relative to men.

This is why an event like the UN Women’s Share Fair is so important. This is why it was immensely critical to have sessions where women from communities affected by extractive industries could have open, face-to-face discussions with representatives of multinational extractives companies. And many had traveled huge distances, gotten on planes for the first time in their lives, for this chance to speak their minds directly to companies.

Did we discuss some of the most pressing grievances facing women in affected communities? Yes. Did we talk candidly about gender discrimination in the sector – that women are excluded all along the EI value chain, and that current policies do very little to protect women’s rights or promote gender equality? Yes.

But did we, as one session promised, take an important first step in finding ‘mutual solutions’ to community-company relations? No.

And why not? Because the vast majority of the companies who had committed to participating didn’t show up. On the roster had been some of the biggies – like Barrick Gold, Anglo Gold Ashanti, Anadarko, and Total. When I asked the event organizers what happened, I was told that most of the companies had sent their regrets close to the Share Fair dates. Other priorities had come up.

I suppose this failure to engage isn’t surprising. Oxfam’s Community Consent Index looks at the publically stated commitments of 38-oil, gas, and mining companies in relation to women’s participation and decision-making in EI projects. Only 9 of those companies mention gender at all in their community engagement policies. Even though there is increasing recognition of gender inequality as a factor of and deterrent to the development potential of EI, prioritization is still not there.

During one of the sessions involving affected community members, a woman reflected on some of the atrocities that her area had been subject to when a mining project began in her community, noting that much of it could have been prevented if women had had a say:

“Consultations happen with men, but I am the one attached to the land, why should anyone negotiate on my behalf? Why would I ever consent to someone taking over my field, my heritage, my tradition, everything I intend to pass to my children? [It’s like] Mining is actually raping women.”

It’s a real shame that the companies weren’t there to hear this.

As I boarded the plane back to the US, thoughts of Kenya as a beautiful, organic country came to mind. I tried to make sense of it next to the image of an industry that extracts age-old minerals and earthly oils from within its depths, alongside the even more horrifying statement of the absolute violation of a person. Could we ever make this industry work for women – for all humankind? Could we ever make this safe for the planet, for mothers, fathers, children and our children’s children?

I’m not sure. And we’ll never know unless we all come together. Unless we all show up.

Oxfam urges governments and companies to make public commitments to women’s participation in community consultation processes and to conduct robust gender impact assessments before initiating EI activities.

Oxfam works in partnership and solidarity with others on women’s rights in oil, gas, and mining, including Publish What you Pay (PWYP), CEPIL, and WoMIN.

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