Women of the Niger Delta face tremendous challenges living and sourcing their livelihood from the land and waters in the region. Beyond being the oil and gas bed of the Nigerian economy, the Niger Delta used to boast of a rich flora and fauna. The wetlands provided habitat to several species of sea creatures that also served as protein and financial sources for the people, while the farmlands richly supplied food like yam, cocoyam, cassava, plantain, potatoes, in huge quantities. The rich mangroves that bordered the water ways were breeding grounds for sea food like periwinkles, oysters, water snails, while the rivers were very rich in a variety of fishes as well as an array of prawns, crayfishes; delicacies that gave the Niger Delta cuisine some uniqueness in the country.
The land itself, a rich vegetation, was very productive making it easy for women , the main farmers, to produce enough to adequately feed their families and sell some to meet other needs including the health and educational needs of the children.
All that has changed as constant oil pollution continues to degrade the land and contaminate the water ways, making these livelihood sources unproductive with little. Sometimes no yield while in some places, wild plants of no real economic value have sprang up. The resultant hunger and poverty have caused women so much anxiety, loss of control of their children especially, the sons with a large number of them resorting to violent and illicit ways of searching for money and survival; a situation compounded by high unemployment. A largely young male populated region, youth from this zone are high on the unemployment scale-Rivers State for example has a high unemployment rate despite being a major oil producing state. For this reason, many have embraced illegal oil refining with a good number dying, maimed or arrested by Joint Military Task Forces; others turn to kidnapping, drug abuse, cyber-crime thus posing serious danger to women and girls especially in the communities. Thus, there is a high rate of incidents of gender based violence, a fact acknowledged by both the police and the International Federation of Female Lawyers, FIDA as well as media reports.
In communities like Erema, Ibaa, Obelle, Rumuekpe, Ke, etc., women live in fear of molestation, losing their livestock, farm produce to bad boys (hoodlums). The situation is equally bad in parts of Ogoni where some wives of highly placed officials are abducted and harassed and fathers plead with cultists to release their abducted daughters. Not even the traders are spared as robbery and sea piracy deny women freedom to trade and improve their living.
This state of challenge has now been further compounded by unpredicted weather conditions that mess up the traditional farming calendar as well as the attendant flooding which have now become an annual affair and a major obstacle to moves to break the cycle of poverty around women in the Niger Delta.
It is on record that COVID-19 dealt a devastating blow on women wiping out the little savings some had managed to put aside as well as the health of some. For women still trying to overcome the high negative impact of the pandemic, life in the Niger Delta becomes a triple tragedy.
Many are finding it extremely difficult to feed as constant flooding forces them to hurriedly prematurely harvest to avert total loss of produce only to come back after the flood and contend with very high cost of food items. A 50 kg bag of rice which sold for N37,000 before the flood is now selling for N50,000 and may sell for as high as N70,000 by December, because the flood ravaged the country right from the North flowing down on its way to the Atlantic. A small custard bucket of rice is N500), a bucket of garri, N10,000. With no source of income now, it is almost difficult to find the projected $1.9 per day average which the World Bank states is below living standard.
Under normal circumstance, in the month of October, we would be expecting the rains to be come to an end and harvests due but the rains did not come early this year. February used to be the kick-off of the main farming season here but with erratic rain falls, short heavy, then some dry spell, there is confusion in the farming calendar and the on-going flood, right now many Niger Delta communities in Delta, Bayelsa, Edo, Rivers states, especially, are submerged in water-agric products are submerged and farming halted, families displaced-some relocated, others hanging on the roadsides, some trapped. This too will translate into deeper poverty.
In 2021, at a retreat organized on wellness for community women by Kebetkache Women Development and Resource Center at Opokuma, Bayelsa State, the general lamentation from the women drawn from Akwa Ibom, Edo, Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers State, was that the little yield from their farms is being stolen by cult boys who act with impunity in communities. This points to danger as openly complaining can attract attack from the rogues. Some women and their families have been written letters of notification of intended attacks or demands by these boys in the recent past.
Currently, many communities have been sacked by fights between rival cult groups trying to control illegal oil refining units in their area. This was the case in Rumuekpe in Emohua Local Government Area, Rivers State. Obelle community was deserted. Life is slowly returning there, Ibaa is under constant attack, the Ogbakiri/Kalabari link road is resurfacing as a kidnappers’ den. Many Ogoni communities are in turmoil, their chiefs and top personalities live outside the communities for safety as cultists continue to hold sway there.
Many families who should be in the villages trying to make out a living, are in the cities-Port Harcourt and Yenagoa because of crisis. A medical personnel confirmed that much atrocities are being committed by the ‘bad boys’ in the communities against women and girls. Girls are being abducted, raped and people look away to save their heads. Life has become an agony for women causing for some, mental illness and nobody is checking.
According to doctors and nurses contacted, there is a rise in cases of high blood pressure and depression because Niger Delta women are under serious economic and social pressure.
A research conducted by Kebetkache on Ogoni Women’s Livelihood Needs showed that discouraged by their experiences on the adverse effect of long non-remediated oil spills, the women are opting for skills training in other fields as well as empowerment programmes to recoup. They want to be trained in such skills as
Some non-governmental organizations, are also carrying out interventions to improve women’s small business skills to help them achieve some measure of self-reliance since poverty robs them of a voice in decision making within the family and in the communities. The Center for Media Environment and Development Communications, CEMEDEC also came up with a Homestead Re-greening programme under which over 70 community women in oil impacted communities, with support from the Global Green Fund, GGF, are being encouraged to farm and plant economic trees around the home, where they will escape impudent harvesting of their produce while also improving the environment. The goal is to get women to carry out layers of farming-planting of vegetables which are quick yielding, while the trees mature and blending this with life-stock farming like snail or goat farming so that over time, there will always be something to make money from. Some measures of success have been recorded with the vegetables, but we are still trying to get the life-stock arm on track. The understanding is that with little space, much can be achieved using new agricultural methods to beat both climate change challenges and dangers posed by food theft.
However, there is need to carry out more research on how best to address these current challenges. Government at all levels need to set up special programmes to address the livelihood needs of rural women as well as set up adult education centers in communities to expand opportunities for new learnings for women.
Financial institutions should also consider programmes for developing the business potentials of the rural women building on the successes of micro-credit bodies like LAPO.
Hydrocarbon Pollution, Remediation Project in Ogoni, HYPREP must build women into its empowerment processes and the Host Community component of the Petroleum Industry Act should ensure adequate inclusion and empowerment of women in disbursements and prorammes as a faster way of building wealth in the Niger Delta.