Llallagua, Bolivia – It started out of necessity 15 years ago. Dolly Quillka Bautista’s husband had slipped into a coma after an accident in the mines, leaving her without an income to feed their six children. She tried odd jobs, but the only one that made her enough money to survive was at the tin mine. So Quillka, in her early 30s at the time, took her husband’s helmet and lamp, and went to work at the mine.
Quillka’s first weeks were mainly dominated by fear – on average, last year, every two weeks someone died in Llallagua’s mines because of a collapsed roof or of poisonous gas, according to Francisca Alicia Soliz Mendez, who heads the local Federation of the Co-operatives organisation for miners. Without any training, villagers enter the mines in groups called “cooperativas” in Spanish, meaning co-operatives.
But besides the safety issues of the mine, Quillka soon discovered that the Bolivian mines are a world dominated by men.
According to a local legend, minerals retreat into the depths of the mountain when women enter, leaving nothing but bare stone. Every day, Quillka was told she didn’t belong in the mines. In addition to the legend that created a hostile environment for her, she had to endure the sexual harassment from men passing by in the dark.
One day, as if by miracle, her husband woke from his coma. Left physically disabled after the accident, he was still unable to work. Yet he forbade his wife from continuing to work in the mine. He was afraid the other miners would laugh at him.
Despite his protests, Quillka kept going.
“I would go at night, when I didn’t have to take care of my children or go to my husband in the hospital,” Quillka told Al Jazeera as she entered the mine on a recent Monday morning. “I wasn’t part of a co-operative yet, but no one guarded the mine entrance as they do now.”
Gradually Quillka learned to stand her ground. Most miners refused to lend their equipment or explain anything about the work. However, a few started to help her. They realised her presence didn’t have a particular effect on the minerals in the rock. Moreover, after Bautista found some big veins of tin, some miners started to believe she brought luck.
There was a short period in the 1930s, when Bolivia was involved in the Chaco War with Paraguay, when women worked inside the mines due to shortage of male labour. The superstitions were temporarily set aside. After the war, the women were pushed out of the mines again, and only allowed to enter the main corridor to collect stones fallen from trolleys.
Fifteen years ago, Quillka, who is now 48, was one of the first women in the Siglo XX mine of Llallagua. Nowadays, more and more women work deep inside the mines: nationwide, of a total 130,000 miners, some 2,000 are female, according to Maria Morales Barahona, a local mining expert.
Most of them are widows because their husbands died owing to a mining accident.
Morales, who hosts the daily radio show Mineria en Accion (Mining in Action) – about mining in Llallagua, told Al Jazeera that Quillka had become an icon in the town. Women see how Quillka manages despite the superstitions, and realise it is possible to work in the mine as a woman.
Morales told Al Jazeera that some of the men have changed their perspectives because of Quillka. “While they drink away their pay check, these women have to cook and take care of their children. That commands respect,” Morales said.
Deep inside the mine, behind a door with a sign that warns, “Beware, danger”, Quillka has a resting nook where she takes breaks from work. It’s a small area like a cave, with light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, some dirty clothes clinging to the jagged rock, and an air compressor that provides pressure for her drill.
Together with her colleague, 50-year-old widow Romalda Colque, she drinks a sip of strong liquor and chews some coca leaves.
The coca leaves stimulate the intake of oxygen, which is why they are a favourite item in the country where many people live at an elevation of 4,000 metres above sea level. It helps to deal with altitude sickness and oxygen-poor mines.
They take some coca leaves along into the mineshaft, where the women also offer some to the altar of El Tio: the devil-god who reins the underground world. He is the one from the local tradition to be enraged by the presence of women deep down the mine, and to hold back the minerals he produces. But Quillka and Colque seem to trust him fully: they believe he will protect them from danger.
The women have to go another 40 metres down a wobbly wooden ladder to reach their work station.
Quillka’s helmet light shines on the wooden beams, some of which are rotten or half-broken under the weight of the stone. The sound of drills breaking the rocks resonates through the mine. After holes are drilled, explosives will be placed in and around them. Sometimes, the air inside gets so thick with smoke that the miners can barely breathe.
The state-controlled Comibol mines are ventilated, and the miners wear masks. Furthermore, the stone is moisturised to minimise dust.
This is not the case inside the “cooperativa” mines, or the ones that villagers mine on their own.
According to a local lung specialist, Osvaldo López Soto, more or less one third of the miners get silicosis : a painful lung disease, which leads to death from suffocation within years. The miners in the area often get the accelerated form, because of overexposure to dust.
The cooperatives provide for some medical care, but there are no social programmes for the disabled, nor for widows.
Saving for the future isn’t much of an option either. Some weeks the miners don’t earn anything because they don’t find any mineral. Other weeks they have more luck. Last January was an average month for Quillka, in which she earned 1,000 Bolivianos – more or less $150.
“I fear the future of my old age,” says Quillka. “The heavy work has been a burden on my back and hips already, which now always hurt. As some days I don’t have the money to eat, while working 12 hours, I end up completely depleted.”
Her colleague Romalda Colque chimes in: “My children, adults now, would like me to stop. But this work is what makes us independent. It’s very important to us. We will keep working as long as our bodies survive.”
After the 1952 revolution, the wives of Siglo XX miners in Llallagua organised themselves as the Comité de Amas de Casa – the Housewives Committee, a union for women working around the mines – the initiative was taken over by others in Bolivia.
They have been a major factor in the recognition of indigenous women’s rights, which has ultimately led to the strong female presence in the current government of indigenous president Evo Morales.
Quillka dreams of becoming a union leader too, because she thinks female miners aren’t united enough. She’s taking evening classes to prepare herself for the work.
“I hope others will not have to start from scratch as I did,” Quillka says. “You don’t want anyone to endure the insecurity and the remarks.”
Outside the mine again, the women are greeted by other miners. A group of men, drinking fruit juice before they head inside, joke about a “La Tia” – the Aunt, there to satisfy the miners’ sexual needs.
When Quillka has gone into one of the barracks to change, one of the men, who doesn’t want his name to be revealed, says the women still bring bad luck to the miners.
“There are almost ten of them working here now,” he says. “But if you ask me: that’s enough. Until this point, not more.”