In Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta, where the nation’s vast oil revenue has not benefited working people, who typically are paid less than $2 per day, women and children are especially vulnerable.
Yet in the face of corruption, environmental degradation, gender discrimination and human rights abuses, a unique, women-led grassroots coalition is training and mobilizing women in urban and rural communities, empowering them to hold local lawmakers accountable and achieve concrete goals in their communities.
Women Initiative for Transparency and Social Justice (WITSOJ), a coalition of union and community groups, formed in 2007, inspired by a Solidarity Center workshop on women’s empowerment and civil-society participation in Warri, a major oil city in Delta State. Since then, WITSOJ has trained more than 5,000 women and young people in hands-on workshops.
“Because of the way the government has been running its affairs (local residents) think they should beg for health care services, schools, roads,” said Sarah Emmanuel-Apia, a lawyer and WITSOJ leader. “We show them the (Nigerian) constitution and the budget and (show them that) these things should come to them even without asking—and if they don’t get it they should come together to make their demands.”
Following one such WITSOJ training in 2011, hundreds of women from several communities marched to the local council building in Oyigbo, a town northeast of Port Harcourt, to demand a health care clinic. Local officials had ignored their requests for years, but empowered by WITSOJ, the women refused to be turned away. Ultimately, the government renovated the area’s dilapidated health clinic and also built a well-equipped health center at nearby Obuakpu.
“Maternal mortality is very high here,” said Emmanuel-Apia. “It’s normal here for women to die giving birth. If bringing the health center will help them live longer, we will support it.”
Emmanuel-Apia and others in WITSOJ are featured in a new Solidarity Center report, “Nigeria: Empowering Women, Transforming Society,” available in English and Spanish.
As a coalition of more than 20 local organizations, WITSOJ regularly taps into the expertise of its members, such as Women in PENGASSAN, the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria.
Ijeoma Dom-Nwachukwu, national chairwoman of Women in PENGASSAN, says the union partners with WITSOJ to fight for “the women who are marginalized in rural areas.
WITSOJ coordinator Dr. Jennifer Spiff says the union’s deep roots in local communities adds credibility to WITSOJ. “The partnership with the union “gives WITSOJ the leverage to be trusted as an organization owned by the masses,” she said.
“Working people see trade unions as representing the people, and believe that WITSOJ cannot be hijacked by politicians, since it has a union collaboration.” The coalition also includes the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC).
Through its outreach, “WITSOJ has made women realize the need for gender equality, and that most times, women can become as good ambassadors in leadership as their male counterparts,” said journalist Gold Minimah, an active WITSOJ member.
Victory Goodluck, a WITSOJ member and farmer from the Ihuike community in Ahoada East Local Government, points out that the organization’s strategy to focus on women works “because women are instruments of change.”
The report is part of Catalysts for Change, a Solidarity Center series highlighting the working people, their unions and activists who are advancing worker rights and greater equity in their societies.
On a late September day in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, hundreds of women from the Egberu, Afam-Ukwu and Afam-Nta communities gathered in Oyigbo.
They had repeatedly tried to talk with the local government council about their dire need for a functional health center but had been ignored. With no health facilities nearby, access to medical care required traveling long distances, a costly expense few impoverished residents could afford, and a journey that further endangered the health of women and their children.
The women marched to the council building that day in 2011 to demand the government meet with them. The council secretary instructed security to lock the gates, but as the guards tried to barricade them, the women pushed the gates open, singing as they did.
They would be heard. Because of their persistence, the council chief of staff met with them and, at their request, asked the state to renovate and update the area’s dilapidated health clinic. The government also built a well-equipped health center at nearby Obuakpu, achievements carried out by community women empowered through a dynamic community coalition, Women Initiative for Transparency and Social Justice (WITSOJ).
Born out of necessity to combat injustices in the Niger Delta, WITSOJ is training and mobilizing women and young people to effectively engage in the democratic political process, hold local lawmakers accountable and achieve concrete goals in their communities. WITSOJ formed in 2007, after a Solidarity Center workshop in Warri, a major oil city in Delta State.
“Women from all Niger Delta states were represented, and we were asked to go back to our communities and ask for social justice,” says Dr. Jennifer Spiff, who heads the organization. Following the Solidarity Center training, more than 200 women from a variety of organizations and communities met in Port Harcourt, and from there, the coalition reached out to additional women-based organizations. Spiff was interviewed as part of a new Solidarity Center report, “Nigeria: Empowering Women, Transforming Society.”
WITSOJ works closely with the national trade union movement, especially with Women in PENGASSAN (the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria). PENGASSAN members have called for transparency in the government’s handling of profits from its vast oil reserves, demanding that oil income fund infrastructure repair and create environmentally safe refineries. The union’s deep roots in local communities adds credibility to WITSOJ. The partnership with the union “gives WITSOJ the leverage to be trusted as an organization owned by the masses,” says Spiff.
Ceciliar Anthony, a farmer who lives in the Kpor community with her husband and three children and who took part in a community campaign for clean drinking water, says “WITSOJ activities brought responses from the leaders who have made firm promises for the first time.”
As a coalition of more than 20 local organizations, WITSOJ regularly taps into the expertise of its members and has the support of clergy. WITSOJ focuses on training women in large part because “women are the most vulnerable and are on the receiving end of social injustice,” says Spiff, WITSOJ coordinator.
“WITSOJ has made women realize the need for gender equality, and that most times, women can become as good ambassadors in leadership as their male counterparts,” says Gold Minimah, an active WITSOJ member.
Victory Goodluck, a farmer from the Ihuike community who has taken part in WITSOJ workshops, agrees. “It is a good strategy to focus on women because women are instruments of change, and WITSOJ has enlightened us to know our rights and the power of women in bringing our desired vision into full manifestation.”
This article is an excerpt from the report, Nigeria: Empowering Women, Transforming Society.” The report is part of Catalysts for Change, a Solidarity Center series supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. The series features the working people, their unions and activists who are advancing worker rights and greater equity in their societies. Their experience and efforts provide real, transferable lessons for others seeking to affect positive change.