Brighter than Gold: Balla’s Story

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A Hard Lesson in Poverty

A classroom in Mali falls silent as a young female student comes forward to make a presentation. Balla, 12, worked in the nearby gold mines until a teacher helped her leave them. Standing at the front of the class, she explains the dangers of mining, especially for children, and encourages her peers to stand up for their rights and resist being forced to work in them.

Balla was one of between 20,000 and 40,000 children in Mali who currently work in “wildcat” gold mines across the country. Wildcat mines, sometimes called “artisanal” mines, are hand-dug by community members and are one of the deadliest and most dangerous kinds of mines. Girls like Balla are stationed near the tops of the narrow shafts, where they help haul up and wash the ores. In the process, they are exposed to mercury and other dangerous chemicals that are used to separate the small amounts of gold from the surrounding rock. Falling, poisoning, and injuries from back-breaking work schedules are some of the other risks that girls like Balla face every day.

“When my mother took me out of school, it hurt me a lot.” – Balla

Given the dangers involved, some may wonder what would bring a parent to let their child be involved in this work. The answer is poverty. 45% of Mali’s population lives in extreme poverty, and households headed by women are especially likely to be impoverished. 66% of the population, and 78% of women, cannot read, which limits them to hard physical work like sharecropping, domestic labour, and mining — all of which pay poorly and force the whole family to work to survive. More than half of all children in Mali are involved in child labour, and one in three children in Mali works instead of going to school.

Balla and her family faced exactly this problem. Balla, her mother, and her older sister all survived on her father’s sharecropping income until he passed away, leaving her mother desperate for money to support her children. She went to work in the mines and took her daughters out of school to accompany her when Balla was just eight years old. Balla hated having to leave school to work in the mines. “When my mother took me out of school, it hurt me a lot,” she remembers.

Balla’s mother would spend long hours below the surface breaking rocks and loading them into panniers that she would hand up to Balla and her sister to wash and check for gold. Even a few grains would help the family survive another week.

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Balla helped her mother at a hand-dug traditional gold mine when she was just eight years old.

Education, Not Child Labour

Education is the key to breaking this cycle of poverty. With low literacy rates in the general population, even just finishing primary school opens up opportunities in future employment and civic participation for girls like Balla. But to finish, they first have to get out of work and back into school.

When Balla dropped out of school, a Right To Play-trained teacher named Sarata saw what was happening. Sarata, other teachers like her, and local volunteers were trained to identify children being pulled out of school for child labour as part of a Right To Play program called “Jam Suka”. Since 2016, Jam Suka has improved the protection and well-being of more than 72,000 vulnerable children in three regions of Mali, many of them in situations just like Balla’s. Sarata and a local volunteer named "Filifing" tried to negotiate Balla's return to education with her mother, but they were unsuccessful because Balla’s mother needed her help while she mined.

“If Balla doesn’t want to end up like the other girls who have had accidents in the mines, she should be brought back to school.” – Filifing, child protection committee volunteer

As the new school year came, a larger effort by Sarata, Filifing, and other Right To Play-trained coaches, teachers, and volunteers came to fruition as part of Jam Suka’s child protection efforts. The program helped build the capacity of local communities to protect children by training volunteers and teachers like Sarata and Filifing to quickly identify children at risk, and work with local institutions to respond to these situations.

Sarata and Filifing spent the summer organizing a parents’ association and bringing them together with the local school board and the child protection committee Filifing volunteered on. Instead of trying to approach parents individually, the teachers, school board, parents’ association and child protection committee called a meeting of the village together. They stressed the importance of education, especially for girls, called on the local council that ran the mine to ban child labourers, and asked parents whose children were working at the mines to send them back to school.

At the community meeting, Filifing, told Balla’s mother, “If Balla doesn’t want to end up like the other girls who have had accidents in the mines, she should be brought back to school.”

This larger, community-wide call for change prompted Balla’s mother to finally relent and let her daughter go back to school. The idea that her daughter could aspire to something greater than mining excited her. With great joy, Balla returned to school in the fall, a year after she had dropped out.

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Balla managed to leave the mines and return to school.

Reintegrating into School

Returning to school after an extended period of absence is always a challenge. Without the right support, children like Balla struggle to catch up to their peers. Right To Play-trained teachers in communities like Balla’s use play-based methods to empower girls and boys who have been in child labour to develop as learners.

Using educational games and activities, they help children cultivate the skills and abilities that form a foundation for academic success and encourage them to stay in school. Female teachers play an especially important role, as they show girls the kinds of opportunities that education can bring.

“When a woman studies, she can be a minister or president.” – Balla

With the right support, Balla dove right in to her studies and became a diligent pupil. She also joined the local children’s club that Right To Play founded at her school. The club helped her understand her rights, and broke down stereotypes about girls and women. The club also provided her with emotional support when her mother passed away, and her older sister became her primary caregiver. Balla’s sister committed to continuing to support Balla and help her attend school.

Today, several years out from working in the mines, Balla is excited by her potential and the possibilities after graduation. She excels in her French and mathematics, helped by the active, experiential principles that her teachers use in their teaching. She’s debating whether she wants to work for the government or to go to medical school to become a doctor. “When a woman studies, she can be a minister or president,” Balla says.

She’s also interested in helping other children who are at risk of child labour. The children’s club encourages her to deliver presentations in school about her experiences where she explains the dangers of mining to children and informs them that they have the right not to be forced into working in them. Balla wants a future where no child has to risk themselves in the mines like she did.

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Balla has continued to be excited by school since returning. She wants to be a doctor or civil servant once she graduates.

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The Jam Suka program that helped Balla and thousands of other children defend their rights was made possible thanks to the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada. Active in three regions in Mali from 2016 to 2020, Jam Suka has worked to protect children against child labour, FGM, early marriage and begging.