Precious work

UQ researcher Lynda Lawson is working with international partners to improve the livelihood of women sapphire miners in Madagascar.

Malagasy woman sieving for sapphires
UQ Research Impact graphic
UQ Research Impact graphic
UQ Research Impact graphic

Lynda Lawson was studying for her PhD and working as a training manager for UQ’s Sustainable Minerals Institute when she first met women miners in Madagascar. 

“I was blown away by their energy and positive nature,” Lawson says.

“The most striking feature of the sapphire business in Madagascar is the absence of support for local people, particularly women, who seek to make a living in this trade.

“I met one woman and she told me her story, and I thought ‘this is what I want to do’ – so I changed my PhD to focus on the pathways, opportunities and challenges for women working across the sapphire value chain.

“The story of mining is so often seen as a male frontier, but there are many women involved in mining and no one has told their story.”

Over the past four years, Lawson has documented and analysed the lives of these women through interviews, photographs and observations during repeated visits to Madagascar. 

Her research has led to the development of training and resources that are empowering Madagascar’s women miners and improving their financial autonomy and independence, while also helping to create change for the gem industry globally.

Unearthing opportunities

Malagasy women sieving for sapphires

Malagasy women sieving for sapphires

Malagasy women sieving for sapphires

During her research, Lawson was asked to present to a Chamber of Mines organisation in Madagascar, where a staff member from the German development agency Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ) was in the audience.

“GIZ asked me to do a baseline study, which involved collecting data from local authorities and interviewing the women in the south-west sapphire fields in groups and individually,” she says.

“I found that these women were among the poorest in Madagascar with very low rates of education and few opportunities. 

“Thousands of women are involved in work with sapphires and other gemstones in Madagascar, but they have very few opportunities to participate in the gemstone trade beyond sieving tailings in the river, surface mining and selling small stones, where they are referred to as ‘the ladies in hats’.”

Lawson says while the price for small, rough stones can be under a dollar a carat, when cut and polished, the best of these stones can fetch up to A$100 a carat, and more.

“I recommended that a way is found for the women to add value to the stones, as currently it’s mostly the men who are selling these on.”

Knowledge is power

Malagasy sapphire miner learning to use loupe and tweezers to identify her stone

Malagasy sapphire miner learning to use loupe and tweezers to identify her stone

Malagasy sapphire miner learning to use loupe and tweezers to identify her stone

With support from GIZ, Lawson worked with UQ geology graduate and gemmologist Charles Lawson to create a basic field gemmology course for the region’s women miners.

“The first step in adding value is knowing about the gems you are selling,” she says.

“Each woman was supplied with a basic gemmology kit – a loupe (a small magnifier), tweezers, a torch and a guide book in Malagasy and English – and was taught how to identify the stone and its quality.

“Their negotiating skills have been greatly enhanced by knowing their stones, and being able to use simple tools such as tweezers and a loupe has been financially empowering.”

In 2017, the Australian Government also came on board, providing funding for a women’s Lapidary Centre that recently opened in the town of Sakaraha, in the heart of Madagascar’s sapphire area. The centre employed a skilled stonecutter who is now training the women on how to cut.

Women in the jewellery supply chain in Madagascar

Alongside this, Lawson is involved with the Gemstones and Sustainable Development Knowledge Hub, a collaboration between The University of Queensland, University of Delaware and Lausanne University and funded by The Tiffany & Co. Foundation.

Working with museums, miners, gemologists, dealers, jewellery manufacturers, grassroots organisations and development agencies, the hub aims to educate the full supply chain of coloured gemstones, from mines to markets, and improve the sector's contributions to sustainable development.

Lawson is involved in two of the hub’s signature projects. One involves consolidating and expanding on the work to train women miners on basic field gemmology by creating a suite of online materials that can be used anywhere. The other focuses on health and safety issues related to cutting, specifically the risk of silicosis, an occupational lung disease caused by inhaling dust containing  silica.

Most of the stones mined in Madagascar end up in Sri Lanka, India or Thailand, where they are cut and then sold to businesses to be  made into jewellery. Lawson recently visited Thailand and opened discussions there about building capacity for the women in Madagascar.

She says while there are certainly many challenges to overcome, she is hopeful for the women’s future.

“The commercial world has a growing awareness and concern about where stones come from, the conditions miners and cutters work in, and the possible associations with environmental damage, conflict and health risks ,” she says.

“I’ve also discovered a lot of goodwill from women in other parts of the supply chain and a feeling of responsibility toward improving the situation of the women miners.”

The story so far:

2013: Lynda Lawson meets women small scale miners in Madagascar for the first time, and changes her PhD topic to investigate the lives of women miners in Madagascar.

2014: Lawson travels to south-west Madagascar and works with a local geographer and local authorities to gain access to women on sapphire fields to conduct field work.

2015: Lawson presents her research to Madagascan mining professionals and is approached by GIZ to conduct a baseline study.

2016: In collaboration with UQ alumni geologist and gemmologist Charles Lawson, Lawson develops and delivers training in basic gemology to women miners.

2017: The Tiffany & Co. Foundation fund the creation of a Gemstones and Sustainable Development Knowledge Hub to promote understanding and sustainable development of coloured gemstones. Lawson is appointed Senior Researcher with responsibility for two signature projects.

2017: Lawson contributes a chapter to the book Between the plough and the pick, published by the Australian National University Press.

2018: Lawson presents her research Ladies in hats: opportunities for women in the sapphire value chain at the Australian Centre for Entrepreneurship Research Exchange Conference and at the World Bank Group Global Conference on Gender and Oil, Gas and Mining.

2018: Lawson co-authors the handbook Women in artisanal and small-scale mining: challenges and opportunities for greater participation.

2018: The Lapidary Centre for Women opens in the sapphire town of Sakaraha, Madagascar.

Image credits: Lynda Lawson, Andry Vahitriniaina Rabemanantsoa and Charles Lawson. Words by Gillian Ievers.

Contact details:

Lynda Lawson, Sustainable Minerals Institute, Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining

Read more about how UQ researchers are making an impact.