By Kizito Makoye
DAR ES SALAAM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 12,000 children have been rescued in the past three years from gold mines in northern Tanzania, according to children's rights groups who fear thousands more youngsters are being forced to work in hazardous conditions for a pittance.
Plan International said the children from Geita region in northern Tanzania are being identified and reintegrated back into school as part of a donor-funded initiative to clamp down on child labor involving children as young as eight.
Police, government social welfare officers and NGO workers were all involved in the mission to rescue the children.
The children's charity Plan said thousands of boys and girls are lured to work in gold mines in northern and western Tanzania every year in the hope of a better life - but many find themselves stuck in a cycle of poverty and despair.
Their health is also put at risk by direct exposure to mercury used to process gold ore and girls often end up selling sex which exposes them to the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.
Tanzania has laws prohibiting child labor in gold mines but critics say the government has not done enough to stop small, illegal mines from exploiting children.
Jorgen Haldorsen, Plan's country director, said the rescues were part of an 800,000 euro ($892,000) project launched in 2012 by the European Union to curb child exploitation in Tanzania, where government statistics show almost 70 percent of almost 50 million people live under the poverty line.
Since 2012 a total of 12,187 children aged between eight and 16 have been withdrawn from working in gold mines in Geita and Nyang'hwale districts in the north of the east African country, figures released this month have revealed.
WORK TO SURVIVE
One child recently rescued from a mine, 13-year-old Antonia Benedict, said she had to quit school after her mother died in 2013 to work crushing gold ore in Geita.
"When my mother died our father abandoned us and he never supported us," she told a recent round table discussion on child labor in Dar es Salaam.
"I had to work to get a little money to buy food for my siblings. With the little I earned I had to buy maize flour and some vegetables to feed my younger brother and sister."
But campaigners say children will still be in danger unless more is done to stop child labor in Geita where there is an abundance of small scale gold mines and weak policies and laws governing child labor.
The project - involving government agencies, international donors and charities - aims to raise awareness among parents of the importance of education and take children out of the mines.
The program has also helped more than 4,600 families set up savings and credit associations that help them pay for their children's studies and create alternative income-generating activities such as food vending, poultry farms and beekeeping.
Azaveli Lwaitama, a political analyst and retired professor at the University of Dar es Salaam, said children would continue working in risky environments as long as poverty persisted.
"Unless the government creates a better environment and economic opportunities for poor families surrounding mining areas they will still let their children work in mines. Child labor is here to stay," Lwaitama said.
A 2013 Human Rights Watch report titled "Toxic Toil: Child Labour and Mercury Exposure in Tanzania's Small-Scale Gold Mines", revealed shocking details of children working in gold mines in Tanzania, Africa's fourth-largest gold producer.
The report said children worked in deep, unstable pits for shifts of up to 24 hours and also transported and crushed heavy bags of gold ore. This put them at risk of injury from pit collapses and health damage from exposure to mercury, breathing dust and carrying heavy loads.
Emmanuel Jengo, executive secretary of Tanzania Chamber of Minerals and Energy, of which all registered mining companies are members, said the problem of child labor is prevalent in small scale mines where there is no regulation.
"Our members do not employ children in mining operations. We support every effort that is directed towards correcting this misfortune and tribulation which is threatening the future of these children," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
($1 = 0.8966 euros)
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)