Not All that Glitters is Gold: How Gold Mines in West Africa Attract Thousands of Women Every Year

IOM/Alexander Bee, Burkina Faso
Oftentimes, trafficking survivors who were sexually exploited end up working in the same area

The latest arrival in a small brothel in the gold-mining hub of Yanfolila, southern Mali, Mariam* still recalls the first time she had sex for money. She took a man into her small, concrete room, and did what she had to do. She then cried and went to sleep, too sore to see other customers.

"I was scared. Usually, you should be doing this with a man you love, but because of money, I've lost my virginity now. I was so scared," she says.

IOM/Anna Pujol-Mazzini, Mali Mariam

The 21-year-old, eldest of five children, left Burkina Faso after her father’s death to support her family and pay for her sister’s typhoid treatment. Within a few days of becoming a sex worker, she was able to send her family 50,000 CFA francs (75 euros) via mobile money.

"The money is dirty, but I am proud of myself. I felt happy. I know with those 50,000 francs I sent, they will pay for my little sister's medicine, and some corn and rice to feed themselves," says Mariam.

Gold, Mali’s top export item, accounts for at least 60 percent of the country’s total exports in 2017 and makes it the third largest gold exporter in Africa. Artisanal mining, mostly small-scale, informal and low-tech, accounts for at least one third of Mali's total gold production.

Every year, the booming sector attracts thousands of men and boys from across the region.

IOM/François-Xavier Ada-Affana
Painting on the wall of a brothel in a gold mine in Mali

Many women and girls are trafficked for sexual exploitation. Others, like Mariam, are forced to work in brothels to support families back home. Before hopping on a bus to Mali, she took advice from a friend who had been there before and liaised on some of the logistics with the brothel manager such as the daily fee for her small room, and how she should behave with customers.

While she says most of her clients are local miners from nearby sites, Malians from other parts of the country and foreigners alike, also come by when they have the occasional day off. When they do, they can pay up to 10 times the average price of a trick - 2,000 CFA francs (3 euros).

Had money not been an issue, Mariam would have been at home with her family. When her mother calls, she says she is working in a friend’s clothing shop. "I feel very bad. There will never be a future in this."

In 2019, IOM conducted a study on Migration Towards Artisanal Mining Sites in Mali and other West African countries. Funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the study helps make up for the lack of data on the exploitation of migrants in mines, 

The findings will help IOM better understand the migratory dynamics in relation to gold mining activities in the region and provide stakeholders with evidence-based research to inform policies, strategies, and responses.

IOM/Alexander Bee, Burkina Faso
Every year thousands of West African women fall victims of trafficking networks and are sexually exploited in gold mine areas across West Africa

The women and girls who choose to be sex workers are still vulnerable to abuse. There is no security in Mariam’s brothel, so when conflict erupts, the women try to defuse volatile situations with drunk customers on their own. 

IOM/Alexander Bee, Burkina Faso
Sex worker in a bar frequented by gold miners in Burkina Faso