Tanzania, Africa's fourth largest gold producer, has been exposed as employing children as young as eight years old to work in its many gold mines, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
In a report released on Thursday, the group accosted the country for allowing thousands of children to work in its small-scale gold mines, some of which happened to be unlicensed.
"They dig and drill in deep, unstable pits, work underground for shifts of up to 24 hours, and transport and crush heavy bags of gold ore," the group said in its 96-page report titled 'Toxic Toil: Child Labor and Mercury Exposure in Tanzania's Small-Scale Gold Mines.'
More often, hopes and dreams of a better life are the main reasons why the Tanzanian boys and girls are eventually lured to the gold mines. However, "they find themselves stuck in a dead-end cycle of danger and despair," Janine Morna, HRWR children's rights researcher, said.
It was found that most of the children working in the mines were orphans. Moreover, young girls living around the mining sites face sexual harassment and exploitation, exposing them to potential risks of getting afflicted with sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS.
A 15-year-old girl working in one mining district told HRW researchers that "sex work is very common."
"A lot of men approach me... always showing me money... I had a friend who is doing that. Most of those are working in the bar. Sometimes they stay here [on the mine]... they sacrifice themselves in the forest. They create a hut and stay."
Those young children and youth working in the mines risk themselves from pit collapses and accidents with tools, along with potential long-term health hazards from breathing dust, mercury exposure, and carrying heavy loads.
"I thought I was dead, I was so frightened," a 17-year-old boy told Human Rights Watch, who survived a pit accident.
Stephen Masele, Tanzania's deputy energy and minerals minister, meantime vowed to curb the child labour practice employed by most small-scale mines.
"Child labor is a serious problem in small-scale mines," Mr Masele told Reuters. "More advocacy is needed to ensure parents understand the importance of education for their children," he said. "We have been carrying out frequent surprise inspections at mines to crack down on this problem."
But while Tanzania may be a signatory to numerous international agreements on the practice of child labor in dangerous mining work, HRW believed the government has done far too little to enforce them.
"Labor inspectors need to visit both licensed and unlicensed mines regularly and ensure employers face sanctions for using child labor," Ms Morna said.
According to 2012 figures released by the United Nations Environment Programme, between 500,00 and 1.5 million Tanzanians are employed in the informal gold mining sector.
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