Interview with Elsie Ijorogu-Reed of Delta Women by Safeworld Student Writer, Lola Johnson
Located in the south of Nigeria, in the oil-rich region of Niger Delta, Delta State is globally known for its conflict, corruption and crude oil. It is a state simmering with oppressed hatred: a prerequisite of war.
Founded in 2010 by Nigerian humanist, Elsie Ijorogu-Reed, Deltawomen is a non-governmental organisation with a vision to empower the indigenous women of Delta State.
Lola Johnson interviewed Elsie Ijorogu-Reed to learn why empowerment and education are essential to the indigenous women of Delta State and how this vision is being realised.
In August 2012, Bloomberg reported that Nigeria’s oil spill agency wanted Chevron (the fourth largest energy company) to pay a $3 billion penalty for a rig explosion that caused a 46 day fire off Nigeria’s delta coast.
This is one of many accidents that cause severe pollution in Niger Delta’s lands and waters.
Naturally, these lead to disastrous problems for habitants of the Niger Delta – especially women.
An estimated 500 million gallons of oil ('Black gold") have spilled into the River Delta. How does this affect the women of Delta State (both directly and indirectly)?
Several multinational oil companies, mainly Shell, Chevron/Texaco, and Elf, have treated both the people and the environment with total disdain and hostility.
They work along with a succession of brutal and corrupt regimes to protect their exploitation of the land and people by providing the Nigerian military and police with weapons, transport and finance. In return the Nigerian government allows the oil companies a free hand to operate without any monitoring.
As a result, the life of the people, especially the women and children, has become a nightmare as they struggle for survival whilst also fight a useless battle against crime and violence in the region.
The oil spill in Nigeria has become a background that catalyses violence against women.
Rape, in particular, has left a terrible scar on the region: in some areas of the Niger Delta, nine out of ten women have been violated.
The level and degree of violence on women and children are so appalling that global humanitarian organisations have given up trying to get figures and are desperately seeking measures to stop the Delta from being another Congo or Sierra Leone.
Women from this area suffer health issues of infertility, early menopause, miscarriages, cancer, rashes etc. This is because the women fish and drink from Chevron polluted water, having no other source of drinking water.
Their traditional means of livelihood (farming and fishing) have been destroyed by chevron oil business activities.
We are hoping that we can minimize the effect of the spill by safe health awareness, health training, free medical initiatives, and advocacy. We are raising our voices louder for the voiceless and also providing alternate skills training for the women.
Has this loss of livelihood set women’s empowerment back? For example does this mean they have to rely even more on men, thereby imprisoning them further in relationships where the man might perhaps see them as property? Does this loss of livelihood increase the rate at which families push their children into prostitution or the rate at which girls themselves decide to work in the sex industry?
Yes it has. Some women remain in abusive relationships because of the fear of surviving without an income or a place to go. We have experienced cases where women were subjected to relationship imprisonment. We were told of how they were laughed at by these men.
Some remind the women that if they leave they would have nothing and their children would be taken away from them, so the women remain.
The loss of livelihood does increase the rate at which families push their children into prostitution or early marriage.
Greed and the desire to be like the Jones-next-door also play an important factor in this. Sometimes, the girls themselves become saddened with the situation of the family (especially if her younger siblings are thrown out of school due to failure to pay their school fees). They naturally and quickly assume the role of the breadwinner of the house through prostitution.
Just like the present Boko Haram violence occurring in some Northern states, is it a case that the Nigerian people are aware of these crude oil problems and refuse to do anything to help?
It is a cycle, really. People know, but can’t act because there is no concerted effort. One person can do something; two can do more; three can do still more; and a thousand can make a very, very big difference.
But the everyday life in Nigeria is about survival. Where is the next meal coming from? How can I escape being looted, robbed or raped?
And when it comes to this, no one can practically look beyond each day, because getting through each day is a task in itself.
Why is the exploitation and oppression of the indigenous people of Delta State by the government and by petroleum companies still on-going? In your opinion, has this exploitation worsened or improved?
The exploitation and oppression of the indigenous population in the Delta State continues because of two reasons – the lack of a legal system that attends to the needs of the indigenous people, and the lack of accountability on the part of the government.
For years, the indigenous community have been placed at the receiving end of resource extraction. In the process, they are burdened with its damaging effects on their lives, economy, health, environment, culture and future. This is further emphasised by the activities that are undertaken with total disregard for their undisputable rights and interests as traditional land owners.
Nigerian laws aim at integrating the nation. They tend to emphasise and work on protecting individual rights and equality of citizenship over group rights. This may be because of the need to avoid any ethnic clashes in a country with over 250 ethnic groups. However, this has proven dangerous because it tends to ignore indigenous sections of society. The second issue is the lack of accountability – there is no vigilante body to demand that the government do the needful for its people.
International organisations such as the United Nations can only do so much, unless the Delta State and the Nigerian Government take up the work and initiative of international organizations, and follow them up with action on their own. It is the middle link, in the form of state authorities, that need to take measures of a more stringent nature to help its people.
“I want to be able to weave a tale of humour, growth, challenge, pain, and triumph. I believe God has offered me MORE than enough material to start with!”
Although she admits that changing the mind-set of people is very challenging, Elsie’s desire to combat it – along with the thriving market for sex – and spread awareness remains strong. Deltawomen provides education, shelter and counselling to victimised women of Delta State whilst also directing them to places where they can get help and resources for advancement.
In the past, in cases where the victims were young and scared of being left alone, the organisation has made use of houses of friends as shelter as well as other NGOs such as Project Alert, a non-governmental women’s rights organisation in Nigeria. To be successful, Deltawomen believes that it must “protect and not punish prostitutes, or women forced to engage in prostitution or commercial sex work.”
Among many other worthy projects, Deltawomen’s Mentorship and Leadership Initiative is aimed at raising female political leaders in Delta State, Nigeria and worldwide.
Deltawomen serves to ‘build the capacity of women to escape poverty and deprivation through self-sustaining by empowerment and education’. Why do you believe these two things are key to serving equality in a patriarchal community?
No matter what the nature of a society may be – matriarchal, patriarchal, equal – it is the woman’s effort that keeps a family together, and helps it run.
This is the main reason why women are targeted in wartime: to break society’s backbone.
By educating women, we create individuals who are strong and capable, and will not be afraid to question what is wrong. Many women don’t question because they simply don’t know that they can. Brute force and might is one thing, but even the strongest tendencies towards violence can be defeated with an educated mind-set. Educating women can bring in a lasting change in mental attitudes in Nigeria.
People in Nigeria tend to believe that a woman’s place is to be subservient, to be the kind that does the man’s bidding in entirety.
We often hear from men that a woman is raped because she deserves it, or asked for it by her conduct.
People sometimes challenge, insult and threaten us online and through emails.
Although your organisation is committed to women from the Delta State, do you also work with women from surrounding Niger Delta communities who face the same problems?
Though our focus is Delta State, we do not turn people from neighbouring states or other communities in Nigeria away. During our free eye tests in Delta State we do not ask people for their state of origin.
We treat everybody. For example, in May 2012, when we held our eye test in Oha, Delta State, about five per cent of the people were not residents or from Delta State. During our first medical outreach and counselling service for cervical cancer held in Lagos State, only 10% of the people tested were from Delta State with 100% of those treated for cervical cancer hailing from Lagos State.
Another example is our counselling services and lastly our first medical outreach which was held the cervical cancer and was held in Lagos state - only 10% of the people tested were from Delta State, and 100% of those treated for cervical cancer were from Lagos state.
By empowering women in Delta State, do you inevitably help children too or is your focus solely on women?
We do focus on children, by extension. By extension, we mean both female victims, and children of victimised mothers.
We recently learnt that the children of Okuijorogu community in Okpe, Delta State have sadly been left behind in a stream of educational developments that they rightfully deserve.
There are no schools in this village and those in need of education are forced to travel to neighbouring villages. Consequently, we have sent out a letter to Delta State’s governor and the commissioner of education and are in the process of speaking to the Honourable member representing Okpe. We also plan to provide free school supplies to the children of this village.
Deltawomen defines empowerment as ‘increasing the spiritual, political, social, and/or economic strength of women, thus developing confidence in one's own capacities’. What is your definition of the spiritual strength of women?
To be in tune with her conscience, for that is the highest sanction one can have on herself.
To live in tune with one’s conscience is to live in a way that one is accountable to oneself, and therefore, that any wrong means one is cheating oneself. If you are answerable to yourself, then you become a better person.
What are the root causes of the sex industry in Delta State?
Nigeria is a major source country for women trafficked into Europe for prostitution and unfortunately, this illicit deal in human beings is not declining.
The notoriety Nigeria has acquired in that regard calls for action to stop the sex trafficking of women in particular. The biggest reason is that there is a thriving market for commercial sex, where trafficked women and girls represent a high proportion of those involved in providing commercial sex - with demand coming chiefly from adult men and older adolescent boys.
Additionally, there is a sense of greed; the desire to get rich quick; poverty; high unemployment; and sometimes the culture of violence against women.
This violence manifests itself when women are deprived of their rightful inheritance in favour of men for example, a widow might not inherit her deceased husband’s house and money, because his family forcefully gives it to his cousin. Other times, when a man dies and his family comes in to take everything, the deceased family is left without any means of livelihood and the elder daughter is forced to fend for the rest of the family.
Competition between families also makes parents push their female children into prostitution or trafficking so that they can be rich like others in the community.
Women say that it is best to give birth to a thief than give birth to a fool; just like the Nigerian proverb that a dog has more respect than a poor man.
So, to gain respect and family “dignity” some people would rather have prostitutes as daughters than remain poor.
Nobody questions wealth in Nigeria: they say “money does not smell”.
Do these women believe they are being empowered in this way? And in attempting to change this cultural and traditional mind-set ‘through awareness and training’, does the organisation face challenges?
Nigeria’s culture has such strong ideals deep-rooted in it. People fight you when you say anything contrary to what they believe in.
Sometimes, we face challenges from even the victims and their families, as they believe it is best to remain silent than to be mocked at by people.
When dealing with rape victims, the families beg the organisation to stop the case or keep quiet, saying they do not want any trouble.
Also in the case of female genital mutilation (FGM), women believe it makes them clean, unlike uncircumcised people who are ‘unclean’. Some women even hold the belief that if a female child is not circumcised, she would become wayward.
Furthermore, the father always dominate the house, so if he believes that circumcision [female genital mutilation] or early child marriage is the way to go, the woman can not oppose it, for fear of being thrown out of the house with no livelihood.
Recognised internationally as the violation of human rights of girls and women, it is clear to see why Deltawomen campaigns to put a definite stop to female genital mutilation. It often results in health complications such as severe bleeding, haemorrhages, infertility and many more problems.
Elsie explained the three main reasons for the wide practice of FGM in Nigeria as psychosexual, sociological and religious.
According to the 2003 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, Female Genital Mutilation is most prevalent in the Southern states (for example, Delta State). This of course completely contradicts with the massive sex industry booming in this same region. Can you explain this phenomenon?
I don’t practically trust Nigeria’s census or demographic information. Also, it is impossible to get a real figure as most cases of FGM do not get reported or recorded, especially the ones carried out by non-professionals.
But the truth is that FGM does not stop promiscuity. If it did, there would not be more sex workers in the south where circumcision is more prevalent compared to the north.
Studies have found that nearly all female commercial sex workers had been genitally mutilated and that FGM could possibly lead to prostitution.
In what way does FGM lead to prostitution? Is it because commercial sex clients believe a circumcised woman is ‘cleaner’ thereby leading to a greater demand for prostitutes who have suffered FGM?
That is one major way, yes. However, women who have suffered FGM also face the trauma of ill-sexual health, and are easy targets for trafficking.
Nonetheless, it would be wrong to say that all sex traders/prostitutes are uncircumcised and that circumcised women and girls are not promiscuous.
Based on our observation, some circumcised women experience issues in their marriages which sometimes lead to divorce. While counselling a couple, the husband described intimacy with his wife as “sleeping with a man”.
When women do not have skills to fall back to after a divorce, they fall back to the world’s oldest trade - prostitution.
One of Deltawomen’s definitions of empowerment is “having the ability to change others' perceptions using democratic means”.
To change pro-FGM perceptions, Deltawomen are presently involved in a “comprehensive campaign involving all sections of society, to boost awareness and shift attitudes”.
With present day attitudes towards FGM remaining identical to those of the past, the importance of this campaign, and numerous other awareness tactics, cannot be understated.
How do communities and hospitals react to complications that arise from female genital mutation? Is this problematic or advantageous?
It is a culture of silence and “leave them for God” attitude.
Is female genital mutilation a subject close to your heart (or indeed, any of the Deltawomen team)?
All of ours, yes. I am a survivor of FGM, myself.
One particular touching story of FGM on the Deltawomen blog is that of Edirin who was forced into being circumcised by her grandmother. Can you provide Safe World for Women with stories and testimonies of women/girls who have suffered from forms of violence, discrimination and injustice?
Edirin’s story is actually MY story. It was a painful write, and our volunteer, Kirthi, spoke with me and put down my story.
Through this story, I wanted girls to know that there is life even after FGM; that though they were made to go through a very difficult ordeal, they are not alone and will always be supported by us.
Has Deltawomen (or any of its crew) faced abuse from victims, families of victims of just community members because of the work it does to raise awareness against FGM?
Our crew is largely based across the world. There have been instances where they have been verbally abused on social networking sites. Email threats were made, some went on to spread malicious gossip about the organization and its CEO, all to discredit our work.
Does public attention plays a big part in your organisation? Do you need it to promote the work that you do? What happens when it dwindles?
Initially, we had to work hard at promoting our work. But now, our rapport with the masses has been built, so we focus on putting up quality material. Our public attention plays a big part, as when we get the public aware and educated they would not only stop FGM from happening in their homes, but would also stop it from happening around them.
Not enough, just yet. Nothing can ever be enough, until the problem is eradicated.
The media is actually beginning to lose interest because, to them, it is the same old story and the problem is not going away.
To them, there is no real action or new story. The media have moved to newer stories because more people are not speaking out and people do not really understand the depth of the pain the victims really go through.
Your organisation supports women only. Considering Nigeria’s patriarchal society, this is understandable. In light of this, would you consider yourself a feminist?
I don’t like titles and there is no black or white in questions like this, Let us say I believe in what I believe in. I am not blind to injustices that men face as well. So if we have to go by titles, I would love to say I am a humanist.
Do you live in Delta State alongside the women you reach out to?
I travel back and forth.
Alongside its global team of writers, does Deltawomen receive help (especially locally) from your family and friends?
We have a local team in the Delta State.
How old are you?
Old enough to be young. I have a daughter, Gabrielle. She is my life.
What were your motivations in setting up Deltawomen?
As someone said, “Once you have stared poverty in the face, your life never remains the same.” I would love to say that my life experiences and pains (having witnessed the suffering of many people) have been my motivation and passion. I am also passionate about keeping my vow to God that if He blesses me, I would be a blessing to others.
Do you have another job apart from this? If yes, how do you manage to juggle your NGO with your job and your personal life?
Yes I do. But life is all about wearing many hats!
What has been the most difficult moment in your life?
I lost my mother this year. Dealing with her passing, my emotions and my family members was not easy.
What are your dreams and aspirations for Deltawomen and for yourself?
I want to be able to weave a tale of humour, growth, challenge, pain, and triumph and I believe God has offered me MORE than enough material to start with!
I want Deltawomen to grow to be a change agent and to be able to make a positive impact in the communities and in people’s lives.
In November 10 1995, Nigerian environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Nigerian government for his non-violent campaign against the environmental degradation of Ogoniland in the Niger Delta.
This ultimately led to the brief suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth of Nations. Following seventeen further years of exploitation, in August 2012, rights group, Amnesty international labelled investigations into Shell’s oil spill a ‘fiasco’.
After 50 years of oil pollution that has utterly polluted the Niger Delta region, Shell and the Nigerian government have refused to act on their pledge to clean the area up, citing ‘sabotage’ as their excuse. According to this global petrochemical company, oil thieves blast into pipelines, stealing petrol for sale in the black market thereby releasing petrol into surrounding areas.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is the practice of cutting away parts of the external female genitalia. It is widely practised in Africa, Nigeria not being an exception. Although there are federal laws banning FGM in Nigeria, it is still widely practised because it is deemed a custom. Opponents of this practice rely on Section 34(1)(a) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria that states, "no person shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment," as the basis for banning the practice nationwide. UNICEF explains the four main reasons for FGM as:
1. Psychosexual: to reduce sexual desire in a female thereby maintaining chastity and virginity.
2. Sociological: for social integration and acceptance.
3. Hygiene and Aesthetics: to promote hygiene and aesthetic appeal.
4. Religious: to follow the mistaken belief that it is demanded by certain religions.
Unreported World documentary, ‘Nigeria: Sex, Lies and Black Magic’.April 2011 saw the broadcast of Channel 4’s
Reporter Jenny Kleeman highlighted the desperation of women from Edo State (a part of the Niger Delta) who were trafficked into Europe as prostitutes after swearing an oath of loyalty to their traffickers. This oath, taken in faith of a ritual religion called ‘juju’ convinced these vulnerable women into thinking they would suffer horrible deaths if they refused to pay the €50,000 debt owed to their traffickers.
Although this trade of prostitution and trafficking is illegal in Nigeria, like most illegal industries, it is prosperous.
In addition to having ratified the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (“CEDAW”), which was designed to put an end to all types of violence against women, including rape, Nigeria has specific laws addressing prostitution. The Penal Code criminalizes importation of a girl under the age of 21 from a foreign country into Northern Nigeria. The punishment is 10 years imprisonment in addition to a fine. The NAPTIP Act 2003 also criminalized foreign travels which promote prostitution and trafficking in women, whether for sexual or labour exploitation.
Lola Johnson is a Safeworld Student Writer, and is studying English and French.
"I was born in Lagos, Nigeria; a city of living chaos...
Every woman in Africa is born weak. Life teaches her strength...
Zora Neale Hurston wrote that, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world.”
Yet, the more I read and live, the more I see that all women are mules of the world. For me, it is not about strengthening or empowering women, as we already have both qualities. For me, it is about breaking free from the cage that man, society, culture and tradition have built around us."