How the gold has lost its luster, the fine gold become dull! The sacred gems are scattered at the head of every street. How the precious sons of Zion, once worth their weight in gold, are now considered as pots of clay, the work of a potter's hands! Even jackals offer their breasts to nurse their young, but my people have become heartless like ostriches in the desert. Because of thirst the infant's tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth; the children beg for bread, but no one gives it to them. - Lamentations 4:1-4
Jeremiah, the author of the book of Lamentations, is contrasting the change in valuation of children due to the recent invasion, siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Before this catastrophe, parents regarded their children as “precious”, indeed “worth their weight in gold”. In all nations and cultures children were regarded as valuable and this was especially so among the Jews. The Bible taught them that every human being is born bearing the image and likeness of God and that “children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb His reward.” (Psalm 127:3) But under the impact of the adversities they were then experiencing, the value of a child was reduced to that of a clay pot. From “sacred gems” they were now like common stones and rubble “poured out at the head of every street.” Some mothers refused to nurse their babies and some even resorted to eating them! (Lamentations 4:10.) Many children wandered in the streets, begging for bread, “but no one gives it to them.”
Why am I drawing your attention to this ancient tragedy? Recently I happened to catch the end of a TV news report on the plight of children in Africa who are mining for gold just barely to feed themselves and their families. One young girl who was, I would say, between ten and twelve years old, appeared to be speckled all over with bleached spots on her dark skin. The mercury she used to extract the gold from the rocks she dug from the ground had sickened her and killed two of her younger siblings, one an infant and the other a toddler. Their deaths greatly saddened her but she had to continue this dangerous work. Her father explained that he had four sons who were going to school so their sister had to work with him mining for gold. These mines are on the surface of the land and are not the deep pits or shafts that we think of when someone mentions mining. Nevertheless, these hand-dug holes do cave in and claim lives.
Why would a parent subject even one of their children to such deplorable conditions and terrible suffering? As with those who were caught in the siege of Jerusalem, these are caught in the grip of extreme poverty. They see no other way to provide for their families and perhaps give some of them a way to escape. As I searched the internet for other information on children mining for gold, I came across a video news report of families working in the Philippines “Gold Coast”. There, children mine in hand-dug caves – under water! In the report, we see a boy of sixteen gripping a slim tube in his teeth (his only source of oxygen) and plunging thirty feet down a narrow vertical shaft filled with water and into a side shaft where he and his father loosen chunks of rock in the dark, placing them into a bag they then haul to the surface. In this instance, they labored for three hours and came up with a bag of rocks which contained no gold at all! This necessitated going back down the shaft and working hours longer. And was this making them rich? Not at all! When, after days of such work they finally were able to get some gold, after extracting it with dangerous exposure to mercury, they took it to the assayer and received a mere $13. This was enough to feed their family but not much more.
There are multiplied millions of children working in dangerous and debilitating work environments when they should be in school and preparing for a better life. Some have been lured by promises of wealth only to find themselves enslaved. Many others are employed or sent by their parents to employers who subject them to these awful conditions. This raises a question we should all think about. Is there anything we have that, even in part, originates by the sweat of children, not to mention their tears and blood? We have heard of “blood diamonds” but what about “blood gold”? Whenever we buy gold jewelry or electronic devices that use some gold, we must wonder if any of it came from the labor of children.
And shouldn’t we also think about “blood copper”, for copper that is also mined by children is used extensively in our technologically advanced way of life. What then is the answer to this problem? Shouldn’t local authorities enforce the child labor laws of their respective countries? Of course they should, but as one of the local officials in the Philippine “Gold Coast” explained, if he were to enforce the law, these families would then come to him asking him to feed them since he had deprived them of their only means of livelihood. That may have been a self-serving rationalization but it has an element of truth to it.
Again, what can we do? Of course, we should exert whatever economic or political pressure we can on the suppliers of these commodities, so that they will do more to ensure that what they buy is not the result of slave or child labor. There are organizations who are galvanizing public support to exert such pressure and we should get involved. But there is something more we can do that is truly positive and effective. Awhile back, Tyla pointed out an article to me that I had overlooked from an issue of Christianity Today, authored by Bruce Wydick, a development economist and Christian who wondered if the child sponsorship programs like the one he and his family participated in were truly helpful in lifting people out of poverty.
The results of extensive studies showed an astonishing level of success in helping to lift people out of abject or relative poverty. It did so, he found, by giving children hope, a sense that they are valuable and that they can achieve a better life. The monthly support provided them, among other things with a basic education, allowing their families to reallocate scant resources for their family’s other needs.
If you are not already doing so, please consider sponsoring a child through organizations like World Vision and Compassion International. You might enquire as to sponsoring a child in a region where children are used to mine for gold, copper or other valued substances. We must help to end this exchange of children’s lives for gold and instead treat them as the sacred gems they are.