The communities constantly grapple with the consequences of oil spills, gas flares and other menaces arising from unregulated explorative activities of the international oil companies. Many women in these subsistence communities bear the burdensome task of caring for their families, protecting them from harsh pollution. The rate of cases of cancer, infertility, leukemia, bronchitis, asthma, still-births, deformed babies and other pollution-related ailments are unusually high in this region. From Ikarama to Akaraolu to Imiringi, women are bruised and dying.

As one farmer, Marthy Berebo shared, “If I am to undress before you, you will see the extent of the toll this pollution has taken on my body. The whole of my body is racked with aches.”

Ikarama, a predominantly fishing and farming community of 10,000 people, also ranks as one of the most polluted communities in the Niger Delta. Settled along Taylor Creek, Ikarama is host to both the Nigeria Agip Oil Company (NAOC) and Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC). Shell’s pipes that link the Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers States all pass through Ikarama. Shell’s Okordia Manifold is also situated in Ikarama. It is assumed that by hosting big international companies like Shell, communities flourish. But the contrary happens to Ikarama, as it finds itself in a deep and dark pool of poverty. The roads have yet to be paved, as promised by the company while the lives of people are becoming worse, with their livelihoods destroyed by the frequent oil spills.

Alili Ziah is a widow with seven children. Before, she could still provide for them through fishing but now that the water has been contaminated, her family has been forced to depend on other people’s charity. “Whenever I set traps and I go to inspect, they are soaked in crude oil,” she remarked. Like Ikarama, Imiringi has been hosting several of Shell’s gas flaring sites since 1972. The health implications arising from the open, poisonous flames are enormous. People who live nearby complain of rashes on the skin, redness of the eyes and other complications. Contamination is quite likely since women usually dry their local staple, kpopko garri near these gas flaring sites. Women’s reproductive health has also been affected, as seen with the rising number of cases of infertility and birth deformities.

Oil has been Nigeria’s lifeblood since the late 1950s, when Shell had its first successful oil well in Oloibiri in the Bayelsa State in 1956. Eighty per cent of the country’s wealth is kilometres of flow lines and 400 kilometres of pipelines. It has 349 drilling sites. At the height of its operations, Shell produced one million barrels of crude oil daily. There are prospects that the figure would once more increase.

Yet oil companies have very little to show in terms of its contributions to the communities’ development. In fact, they have merely subjected communities to more poverty and disease because of their unregulated means of polluting the land, water and air. In the Niger Delta alone, there are more than a hundred gas flare sites. With the huge money involved in this industry, it not surprising to see conflicts that claim the lives of over 1,000 people annually.

Of the oil companies operating at the Niger Delta, Shell has been deemed as the most notorious as it sanctioned human rights abuses committed by security forces at its employ. Shell arms and pays government security personnel and outfits who are always quick to quell any signs of uprising and carry out wanton human rights abuses. In all of these, women are the major victims, as widows and mothers. They have been the families’ pillars on whose shoulders much of the sorrow and deprivation fall.

Many women still carry scars and live in deformed bodies as a consequence of the military operatives that paid by Shell moved into the communities with amoured tanks, guns and weapons, shooting and killing hundreds of people including women and children, mowing down entire villages, and maiming thousands, in times when Ken Saro-Wiwa roused the consciousness of the nation and the international community over the environmental injustice in Ogoniland.

Promise Yibari Maapie had her left arm permantly withered as a result of a gun shot. Her daughter Joy also sustained damaging gun shots on her legs. “The soldiers brought pain, sorrow and hunger into my life,” she told a reporter. After the infamous Ogoni genocide, there have been several cases, including that of the Odi Massacre in 1999, where entire towns were razed down. It was a retaliatory move by the government’s troops, arising from the killing of some military men by militants. In mid 2009, massacres and bombings happened in several villages in the Gbaramatu Kingdom in the Niger Delta. In the process, many women were killed, wounded or displaced. There were reported cases of those who gave birth in the forests and creeks while running away from the military attack. As usual, there were reports of rape by the soldiers.

Women are the foremost victims in the Niger Delta tragedy. Apart from contending with gas flares and oil spills, they also live at the very edge of their lives. When rusty pipelines conveying crude oil burst, farmlands, forests, streams and rivers are damaged. Scores are also killed as in October 1998 when an oil pipeline explosion roasted around 2,000 people in Jesse Town in Ethiope, West Local Government Council of the Delta State. Worse, government interventions are nonexistent and when they exist at all, they are either belated or half-baked. Besides this, constructions of gigantic drilling projects pollute and alter the communities’ water ways, depriving residents’ access to water. These impacts are felt most by women. Aside from being farmers, they also provide food and water for the family.

Despite the tragedy that their bodies bear, women have been rendered voiceless in many communities. In most communities, it takes the special intervention of civil society organisations (CSOs) for women to be allowed into the town hall consultative fora where issues affecting the communities are discussed. Men would always insist that the matters to be discussed are too serious for women. In many cases, women cannot claim land ownership. Farmlands usually belong to husbands and fathers. The deaths of their husbands or divorce could spell the end of their stay in those lands. Thus, environmental disasters constitute a double tragedy for women.

Nonetheless, in some communities, women are organising themselves, attempting to undo the malevolent strings of retrogressive customs and take up their destinities into their own hands.

Excerpted and adapted from: “When Blessing Becomes a Curse in the Niger Delta”, by Betty Abah, for Women in Action, the Journal of the ISIS International Women’s group in the Philippines, published February 2010 (edition titled: Women in a Weary World: Climate Change and Women in the Global South). This article can be read on line with pictures at:

Ms Abah is Gender Focal Person of the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria. E-mail: /

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