Reduced economic activity brought about by the prolonged lockdown to slow down the spread of Covid-19 may be fuelling child labour in Zimbabwe’s informal gold mines.
Latest research by the Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association (Zela), a vocal watchdog of the country's mining sector, shows an increase in the number of children being forced to work in informal gold mines.
Primary school-going girls are also venturing into sex work in large numbers in the gold mining areas, Zela says.
"In the mining community, child labour has increased since the lockdown, with many children getting involved to try and earn income for their families," the Zela research findings said this week.
The research, which targeted mines that were closed down, was conducted between September and November.
“At some closed mine sites, illegal artisanal mining operations are taking place and in some cases such operations involve child participation in mining especially at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown and school closure period," the report adds.
“This has negative implications on the artisanal and small-scale mining value chain. Sourcing gold from mines operated by children affects the marketing of the mineral."
Zimbabwe first imposed a national lockdown in March after recording its first Covid-19 cases resulting in reduced economic activity.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa's government has been gradually easing the restrictions, but experts say the country's largely informal economy will take time to recover.
In a recent report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said an estimated 1.5 million Zimbabweans had turned to artisanal mining as a safety net.
"This trend will likely persist as Covid-19 brings additional hardship and spurs urban rural migration," the ICG said. According to the United States' Bureau of International Labour Affairs, Zimbabwean “children engage in the worst forms of child labour, including in commercial sex exploitation, mining and tobacco production.”