Caroline Usikpedo, the national director of the Niger Delta Women’s Movement for Peace and Development, has something important to say. But she’s not speaking for herself, she’s speaking for women who have been forced from their homes by oil spills.
In her office in Ughelli, she shows me with a smile her badge from the 2012 CIVICUS World Assembly hung on the wall with at least twenty other badges from other international meetings and conferences, among which are badges for COP17 and Rio+20. Caroline travels a lot for work because she wants to represent the voices of the rural women of her region internationally. “I’ve got to tell the situation and the challenges of my community”, she explains. Her story is the story of the Niger Delta Province in Nigeria, which has grown to more than 4 million inhabitants but has not grown in terms of development or infrastructure. Caroline asks me on the way from Warri’s airport to Ughelli: “Have you seen the deforestation from the plane? The petrol industry is impacting badly on the agriculture. People can’t use their land anymore to farm.” Oil was discovered in the late fifties in the Niger Delta, and some sixty years later, when arriving in Ughelli, I wonder where all the oil revenue has gone.
The forum organised by Caroline and her organisation focuses on citizen’s engagement in the Niger Delta and on the impacts of oil pollution. Caroline has been granted one of five 2013 CIVICUS Nelson Mandela- Graça Machel Innovation Awards. It was really inspiring to meet and listen to the women (and some men too) who attended this local consultation, speaking of all sort of issues affecting their lives and communities. And there is a long list of issues: the impact of oil pollution on agriculture, water and quality of land; the corruption it triggers and which brings no development to those communities; and the remaining tradition in some villages of women having to kneel down to speak publicly. Voices grew louder and more passionate each time the topic of gender empowerment was raised. Their calls are very similar to what you hear at international conferences, such as: “women should have equal rights”, “for a woman to fully develop, we need to educate the girl child and it starts with us, send your girls to school”, and so on.
As Caroline puts it, the Niger Delta Region’s people have suffered maltreatment through political and economic marginalisation, violence and environmental degradation. Together, these women want to do even more for their communities. For example, they want to send representatives to governmental commissions to raise issues of water pollution, unfinished public works affecting schools and hospitals and energy waste.
“Don’t forget that government isn’t everything! Connect with other NGOs. Together you can do more. Networking is the key if you want your voices to be heard”, advises Caroline. The event itself is indeed a perfect example of the networking needed, between local civil society organisations, grassroots movements and NGOs. Women’s groups need support in their advocacy, documenting of their situation, compiling of data and getting their voices heard. Also, because “it is only by holding the polluter accountable for its pollution, and making the polluter pay, that we can finally make steps to protect human rights”.
Though Caroline travels a lot, she is also deeply rooted in the Niger Delta region, and she knows all too well the problems of her communities and of the women attending this event. She is well known and respected for the work she does of organising training sessions for women (on sewing, computers, fashion and so on), for raising awareness and for advocating for the rights of women and environmental protection. Comfortable both at the podium of an international audience to explain the Niger Delta’s situation, and sat on the floor sharing her skills and knowledge, Caroline manages to reconcile the global with the local. She and the Niger Delta Women’s Movement for Peace and Development have an important message and a many stories that need to be heard.
Dorothée Guénéheux is Convening Officer at CIVICUS, the global alliance for civil society.