The discovery of oil in Nigeria’s Niger Delta in 1956 has brought nothing but increased poverty, underdevelopment and violence to the people of the region. Demands for social and environmental justice have been met on the one hand, with brutal repression and the militarisation of the region, by successive governments and on the other, hostility and disdain by the multinationals such as Shell, Chevron and Elf, whose collective operations in the Niger Delta are one of the worst environmental re...read more
The discovery of oil in Nigeria’s Niger Delta in 1956 has brought nothing but increased poverty, underdevelopment and violence to the people of the region. Demands for social and environmental justice have been met on the one hand, with brutal repression and the militarisation of the region, by successive governments and on the other, hostility and disdain by the multinationals such as Shell, Chevron and Elf, whose collective operations in the Niger Delta are one of the worst environmental records in the world: Pollution of the air and drinking water; damage to forest areas; oil fires that have left people dead and maimed occur on a regular basis; damage to fish and other sea creatures; oil spillage is also a regular occurrence; dumping of oil into rivers and creeks, and for the past 40 years uninterrupted gas flaring that produces noxious gases and soot close to villages and farms. Some of these flares spew balls of fire up to 300 feet in the sky. The people of the Niger Delta now find themselves “trapped between two evils – the oil companies on the one hand and the tyrannical Nigerian government on the other”. As a result of the above the people have been left pauperised and marginalized.
Women in the Niger Delta, particularly in rural areas are the breadwinners in their households and communities. They are the farmers, fisherwomen and they are responsible for the cooking, cleaning and raising of children and as such it is often women that are most directly affected by destruction of the environment. Nevertheless despite the many hours of daily labour, women have been active at village and community level in the struggle against the multinationals and state aggression. They have paid a high price for their activism. The military and armed police have systematically gone about terrorising whole communities, assaulting and beating indiscriminately. The aim of these attacks is to damage, humiliate or destroy. In addition women are subjected to repressive cultural traditions ranging from the prevention of women in the decision making processes of their communities, to forced female genital mutilation, widowhood rites and domestic violence. Women in the Niger Delta live in fear, fear of walking, fear of trading, fear of sexual abuse, rape, beatings, fear of violence.
The specific types of violence committed against women are: Sexual violence such as rape and prostitution; physical violence such as beatings, maiming and murder; violence against property and violence in the home or by men in the community.
With regard to prostitution and rape, the latter has become a ritual amongst the occupying military and armed police forces as well as security personnel employed by the oil companies. Starting as far back as 1993 at the beginning of the Ogoni campaign, rape has become part of the campaign to destroy and undermine the communities of the Niger Delta. In many cases the rape takes place in the presence of husbands, children, siblings and other members of the community. Women are often dragged from their homes at night, they and their husbands threatened with violence if they do not comply. Women in villages, farms or fishing grounds that are located close to oil facilities are at most risk of sexual abuse, - daily harassment, prostitution and rape - by oil workers both foreign and Nigerian including security guards.
In terms of physical violence, Women are beaten, maimed and abused by the military and police. In every instance the military and police turn peaceful demonstrations and protests into carnage. For women the result is rape, beatings, amputations or worse.
In the case of violence against property, women are subject to having their farms ransacked or their produce stolen. Again these actions are not random but rather systematic acts aimed at destroying property and thereby further undermining Niger Delta communities. Market women have had their stalls and wares destroyed. Often the soldiers, security personnel or oil workers (who know security guards will come to their defence) refuse to pay for their purchases and the women face verbal abuse and possibly physical violence if they protest.
Women are also subjected to mental and emotional abuse. Violence does not actually need to take place, once it has been established as the norm. It is enough to know that violence is a possibility. Women walk in fear as they try to go about their daily work. Fear of being raped, of being beaten or maimed. In addition many husbands, fathers and sons have been killed or maimed leaving women to assume even greater responsibilities. This has meant enduring serious hardship, in finding ways and means to support their families.
This is the abuse and oppression women face in the Niger Delta from the Nigerian government forces and the multinationals. This is in addition to the farmlands, fishing waters and livelihoods destroyed through environmental damage, to say nothing of the impact on the health of women and children, such as skin conditions, bronchial problems, and miscarriages.
Women are very often empowered by the very same events and experiences that seek to destroy them. This may include, becoming politically active, taking on new roles in defence of their property and maintenance of their households. This is also one way in which women can begin to at least attempt to heal the physical and psychological wounds they have suffered.
The women of the Niger Delta have a history of revolt and resistance towards the Multinationals dating back to the mid 1980s when two revolts took place. The first was the Ogharefe women's uprising which took place in the Ethiope LGA in 1984 and the second was the Ekpan women's uprising, in the Okpe LGA in 1986.
More recently there has been the EGI women's revolt which started in September 1998 and the Ijaw women who demonstrated in Port Harcourt in January 1999. The demands of the former were and are similar to the two previous revolts. On 23rd Nov some 7,000 EGI women gathered in the streets and began marching towards ELF's gas plant site. But Elf blocked the road with the help of some 100 mobile police so the most the women could do was to sing and dance as a means of making their message heard.
Since then the women have been accused of trespassing on their own land. Local police and oil personnel have continued to harass them. The present situation is that the women have aligned themselves with the EGI youth council and the struggle continues.
The Port Harcourt demonstration was organised by the Niger Delta Women for Justice (NDWJ) The women took to the streets of Port Harcourt, to demonstrate peacefully against the raping and molesting of women and young girls as well as the beating and killing of young men in Yenagoa, Kaiama and other Ijaw villages. The soldiers fired shots into the air and then arrested at least 34 of the women. Those arrested were stripped, flogged and verbally abused. Others sustained injuries whilst fleeing from the rampaging soldiers.
Grassroots women’s organisations have become steadily more politically active since 1999 as the violence in the Niger Delta has become more widespread. Organisations such as FOWA (Federation of Ogoni Women’s Associations) NDWJ, Egi Women’s Council, Agape is a Birthright and Warri Ladies Vanguard, have become active in the daily struggle against environmental and social injustice. Working together with local youth organisations and human and environmental rights groups, these organisations are involved in monitoring oil spills, and other environmental and human rights abuses, documentation of grievances and compensation claims, advocacy, human rights training.
It is the women together with the Youths that are taking the initiative in the Niger Delta struggling against both the multinationals, federal and state governments alliance and the 'old guard who have failed the people and would like to maintain the status quo at the peoples expense.