In every corner of Africa, the stories are similar. Death, hunger and rising poverty levels are the devastating outcomes induced by corporations in host communities. Contrary to the healthy, prosperous and wealthy society narratives often promised these communities by corporations, exposure to toxic wastes, loss of livelihoods, restrictions on mobility and massive environmental degradation become their actual lived realities. Active non-compliance and violation of environmental regulations by corporations on the one hand, coupled with wilful denial of the existence of these human rights violations by states on the other, ensure poor communities and especially women continue to bear the burden of the environmental cost of business over long time periods.
One of the communities that I work with is the relocated community of Arda Transau in Zimbabwe. Between 2009 and 2011, diamond miners in Zimbabwe relocated more than 700 families from Marange to Arda Transau, 40km north of the diamond fields. Since then, the community has been ravaged by death due to water-borne diseases caused by a lack of access to clean water and poor health services; food insecurity due to pollution and siltation of rivers by diamond miners; deteriorating education standards due to rising population and overcrowding.
Women have been the worst affected. They now travel longer distances to fetch clean water and spend more time caregiving for those who fall ill with typhoid and cholera. Other social impacts include increase in sextortion, sometimes referred to as 'transactional sex', as women negotiate with the military and private security agents to enter Marange diamond concession in search of wild fruits and firewood to sell. Less than a decade later, their houses have started cracking and are literally falling apart. Before being relocated, the diamond miners and government promised the families adequate housing, jobs, tap water, clinics, schools, electricity and irrigated fields.
Across Africa, when affected communities speak up and fight for their rights through filing administrative and judicial complaints, their quests for justice becomes an injustice in itself because of long delays in this process. When they organise and build movements in the communities resisting mining, they are arrested and criminalised and labeled economic saboteurs. When they build campaigns on the media and try to get a voice, governments close the space by deploying state security agents to quash community movements.
Women Human Rights Defenders face malignant sexual harassment and intimidation for seeking justice for violations caused by the activities of corporations. When women from the Arda Transau community staged demonstrations demanding clean water, they were threatened with arrests and labeled 'prostitutes'. When Arda Transau community organised into a community based group mobilising for members and the women organised women’s forum movements, the government accused the community of joining political opposition movement and closed all doors of engagement with the community group.
When the Arda Transau community initially resisted relocation in 2009, the police descended upon the community and warned them not to stand in the way of development. Despite this indirect threat, the Arda Transau community filed a High Court application seeking enforcement of Constitutional provisions on fair and adequate compensation and the right to title for the houses they were relocated to. It has been two years now and it is still unclear when the matter will be heard and judgment passed.
This week I joined more than 200 other civil society representatives from around the world at the UN in Geneva, where I represented ActionAid's Africa Extractives Working Group. We have spent the week listening and intervening as our state representatives carried a round of negotiations on how to regulate the human rights impacts of business activities in international law. An international instrument on business and human rights could give the Arda Transau community the chance to access justice outside of Zimbabwe, in the 'home' country of the mining corporation.
The binding instrument negotiations provide hope for justice for many of us in Africa. We have hope that if such an instrument comes into force, we - us and future generations - will have a good chance at justice for rights violations by corporations.
We have seen those who oppose the binding instrument say the current draft is ambitious and imprecise. We know that the binding instrument will not be the silver bullet to solve all problems and rights violations by corporations in Africa, but we believe this binding instrument will give women human rights defenders power to continue seeking justice against violations. We believe the binding instrument will introduce preventive measures to help shield women from devastating impacts of the business of corporations on their bodies. The binding instrument will place measures to enable women’s voices to be heard by governments and corporations.
The reading of the zero-draft of the binding instrument on business and human rights is among the first historic steps taken towards a treaty. As I go back to Zimbabwe, I am reenergised to keep fighting alongside mining affected communities, and I call on all women’s rights activists to stand with women affected by corporate abuse to keep pressure upon their states and ensure the process doesn’t stop here.