Photo by Zama Coursen-Neff for Human Rights Watch

Children as young as eight are risking their lives daily by working in Tanzania’s small-scale gold mines, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch. The global watchdog’s document, released Wednesday, describes the plight of thousands of child laborers who dig and drill deep, unstable pits, work underground in shifts of up to 24 hours, and transport heavy bags of gold ore for Africa’s fourth-largest gold producer. Children who work in mining face the constant threat of injury from pit collapses and accidents with tools, as well as long-term damage from exposure to mercury, breathing dust, and carrying heavy loads.

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Human Rights Watch visited 11 mining sites in Geita, Shinyanga, and Mbeya regions, and interviewed more than 200 people, including 61 children working in both licensed and unlicensed mines. Although Tanzania has strong laws prohibiting child labor in mining, the government has done little to enforce them, says Janine Morna, children’s rights research fellow at Human Rights Watch.

Many of the children are orphans or otherwise vulnerable minors who lack basic necessities and educational opportunities. In some cases, mining causes children to skip classes or drop out of school. Human Rights Watch also found that girls on and around mining sites face sexual harassment, including the pressure to engage in sex work. Some girls become victims of commercial sexual exploitation as a result, risking HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Child laborers court poisoning from mercury, which miners mix with the crushed ground ore and burn to release the gold.

Child laborers, as well as children who live near mining sites, also court poisoning from mercury, which miners mix with the crushed ground ore and burn to release the gold. Mercury from the toxic fumes attacks the central nervous system and can lead to lifelong disability in developing bodies who are more sensitive to the effects of the heavy metal. Worse, most adult and child miners are unaware of these health risks, and health workers lack the training and equipment to diagnose or treat mercury poisoning.

“Tanzanian boys and girls are lured to the gold mines in the hopes of a better life, but find themselves stuck in a dead-end cycle of danger and despair,” says Morna. “Tanzania and donors need to get these children out of the mines and into school or vocational training.”

+ Toxic Toil: Child Labor and Mercury Exposure in Tanzania’s Small-Scale Gold Mines

+ Human Rights Watch