Women in the Niger Delta: Violence and Struggle  - Sokari Ekine 1999

Introduction 

The aim of this paper is to particularise the impact of oil exploration and the events in the Niger Delta on women.   I will outline the violence they are subjected to and their responses to that violence.  There are a number of well known facts about women which apply equally to women in the ND, such as: Women suffer great hardships in times of war; they are victimised, brutalised, subjected to rape, military prostitution, physical abuse and forced to flee their homes in distress;  they are the poorest of the poor for whom survival is the main issue. Who are these women that I am referring to?  They are our Mothers, our Sisters, our Daughters, our Wives.   In the Niger Delta 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.  The majority of people in villages are women, children and the elderly.  So when you attack a village you attack those people.   

Abuse against women

 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 

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.  In some instances the rapes actually take place in the victims home. One particularly ………period where systematic rapes took place en masse was in December 1998 and January 1999.  Prior to the December 30, deadline set by the Kaiama declaration, several thousand troops were moved into the Ijaw areas of Delta and Bayelsa states.  On the 30th several thousand youths supporting the Kaiama Declaration, demonstrated peacefully in Yenagoa, Bomadi, Oloibiri and other Ijaw communities.  That evening the governor declared a state of emergency in Bayelsa State.  Youths were attacked, beaten, seriously wounded and killed by troops.  Meanwhile the military launched a separate attack on the women and girls. In Yenagoa for example, mobile police  raped many women.  They were first dragged from their shacks together with their husbands and then threatened with additional violence if they did not comply with the rapes.  In other cases the women were raped in their own homes. Neither pregnancy nor age is a barrier to these brutal disgusting acts of violence.  One example is the case of a set of 12-year-old twins who were raped by three soldiers in front of their older brother in their own home. Their bodies and lives ruined in an orgy of crazed violence.  

Again these acts of systematic abuse were repeated in Kaiama where the whole town was subject to unrestrained violence including raping and beating of women of all ages. Only this month (November) in the Choba community of Rivers State, some 67 women including pregnant women and young girls have been raped and flogged by military personnel. The rapes have taken place at different times, in different places and situations.  So confident are the soldiers that their despicable acts will go unpunished, they rape in broad daylight in the front of witnesses. Despite catching some of the rapists on camera, the military hierarchy and the President have denied the military involvement in the crimes. 

 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.  Following an attack on an Ogoni village, a young sixteen-year-old runs with her junior siblings to hide in the bush away from the soldiers. After three days, the young girl ventured out to find food and water only to be found by the soldiers who raped and beat her in front of her siblings.    

Added to the physical and mental trauma that results from rape, is the shame the women and girls feel. The horrors of sexual violence are further compounded by pregnancy. There are no medical or support facilities to cope with the needs of these victims and their families.  It is important too that we remember the level of poverty in these areas. This poverty aggravates the situation in which the women find themselves.  In short there is nothing to alleviate the pain, there isn't even time, as children need to be fed, farms farmed, produce sold.  

Prostitution is on the increase.  Many towns and villages have seen an influx of male workers from other parts of Nigeria as well as a large expatriate community. This together with poverty, illiteracy and lack of any alternatives has led many young girls into prostitution.  Often girls are raped, then forced into prostitution and worse made to engage in bestiality by some expatriates. There is also military prostitution - wherever the army goes they set up their own brothels forcing local girls to prostitute themselves. Families face additional victimisation if they try to protect their children and refuse the military. 

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 Rivers State community of Egi, a simple act of a young woman, bringing food for her brother jailed for distributing leaflets, results in her being beaten by so called "police".   

As for Violence against property, Women are also 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.

 Finally, two issues underpin the abuse of women in the ND - poverty and lack of development.  Both are a direct result of the complete disregard for every aspect of indigenous life and property.  Thus last year we saw the death of hundreds of  women - women with children on their backs - struggling in all their poverty to collect drops of fuel - which at the same time were destroying the very environment in which they lived.  The suffering did not end there as the military regime refused any help for victims and instead together with the multinationals, spent their time accusing people of sabotaging the pipelines. 

 RESPONSES

 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. The women of the Niger Delta have a history of revolt and resistance towards the Multinationals. For example, two revolts took place in the 1980s, the 1984 Ogharefe women's uprising which took place in the Ethiope LGA and the 1986, Ekpan women's uprising, in the Okpe LGA. Both communities are predominantly Urhrobo and are in the present Delta State.   Much of the Ethiope & Okpe LGA have been swallowed up by petroleum exploration / production and oil processing.    I mention these two in particular because the strategies they each used were quite different. It is useful for us to see how this resulted in different outcomes for each of the protests. 

 The region has two realities, which are clearly contradictory.  On the one hand for the oil industry and Fed government, Ethoipe and Okpe are of immense financial and strategic importance.  They produce billions US$ for them and the comprador class of "business men" and civil servants.  For the indigenous people, it is farms, fishing areas, markets and ancestral homes. 

 In the Ogharefe uprising, (which interestingly aligned the Council of Youth with the Council of Women) the women demanded the oil company pay them for lands seized & pollution damage. They also demanded a reliable water well and electricity.   The Oil Company refused to listen, so finally the women took action. The entire women folk of several thousand prevented the oil workers from leaving or entering the production station.  The company said it would send the managing director to talk with the women.  The women refused and threatened to strip naked there and in the end this is exactly what they did.  The sight of thousands of naked women of all ages was too much for all, officials; police and bystanders all fled.  The women's demands were met almost immediately.

 There are a number of significant differences in the two revolts.  In the Orgarefe one:

1) The women aligned themselves with the youth council; 2) the Nigerian government was not involved 3) the women refused to negotiate 4) the backroom deals between the local traditional rulers and the government were exposed and 5) the well organised tactics of the women using their ultimate weapon, nakedness;

 The 1986 Ekpan women's uprising took place within a completely different political atmosphere - two recent coups and the IMF/SAP debate.  There had recently been a revolt against tax on women in UGHELLI, which was directed at traditional rulers, and there had been an uprising in Bonny by local residents and oil workers against the oil company. 10, 000 women of all ages, besieged the NNPC and the Petro chemicals plant at Ekpan.  They blockaded the access road and the men meanwhile laid ambush with various local weapons.  Again the women threatened  nakedness! But did not carry the threat through.

 The women agreed to hold discussions with the NNPC (ie state officials)  and presented their demands which were around recruitment issues, local contracts, compensation, piped water & electricity, and scholarships for their children. The next meeting took place 2 weeks later but was between NNPC and local chiefs.  Basically this was the end of the revolt - the mistake the women made  was allowing the meeting to be hijacked by the men particularly the village chiefs and elders.  The result was the women were sold out by their own leaders who were in league with NNPC and actually condemned the women's action.  The youth council was not involved in this case.   

More recently there has been the  EGI women's revolt which started around Sept 1998 and the Ijaw women who demonstrated in Port Harcourt in January this year.  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.

 CONCLUSION

 Women's organisations, such as the Federation of Ogoni Women's Organisations (FOWO), the Niger Delta Women for Justice, (NDWJ)  the EGI women's movement  the Ijaw women's organisation for Human Rights to name a few,  continue the struggle against violence and injustice, environmental abuse and underdevelopment.  It is these 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. 

 Bibliography

Human Rights Watch - Report on the Niger Delta, 1998

Women, Poverty, and Population - Dr. Ada María Isasi-Diáz

Turner, Terisa: Women's uprisings against the Nigerian oil industry in the 1980s

Wiwa, Diana: The Role of Women in the Struggle for Environmental Justice in Ogoni.  1997 

 

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