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Peacefully, Nigerian women win changes from big oil

Last Thursday, women blocked the entrances of two oil company facilities, the latest in a month of protests.

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The town museum in Calabar, southern Nigeria, contains a striking section on a 1929 Niger Delta protest known as the "women's war." The conflict, which stemmed from opposition to British colonial rule, escalated after villagers in the Owerri province clashed with a mission teacher carrying out a tax assessment. Local women sent folded fresh palm leaves to neighboring communities as a signal to begin attacks against buildings symbolizing the imperial presence.

"The white men should return to their own country," says a piece of contemporary propaganda quoted at the museum, "so that the land in the area may remain as it was many years before the advent of the white man."

More than 70 years later, the women of the oil-rich delta are stirring once more. On Thursday, hundreds of women blocked the gates of ChevronTexaco and Shell offices in the southern port of Warri. For several hours, workers at the two locations were kept from entering or leaving the facilities. By Friday, the protest had ended peacefully.

This protest was the latest in a month of all-women demonstrations that began July 8 with a 10-day siege of ChevronTexaco's offices in Escravos. Observers say that protests by women are becoming the most effective tool to force social improvements by US multinational oil companies doing business in Africa.

The Escravos women, who ranged in age between 30 to 90, used a potent tactic: they threatened to take their clothes off. Public nudity would have embarrassed the expatriates among the terminal's more than 1,000 workers and caused a deeper sense of shame for many Nigerian employees.

"By the time the women bare their chests and go around, people are really in trouble," says Bolanle Awe, one of the founders of the Women's Research and Documentation Centre at Nigeria's University of Ibadan. "It's a curse on whoever the ruler is."

The tactics and determination of the Escravos women helped persuade Chevron to send senior executives to negotiate concessions. The company agreed to employ more local people, invest in electricity supply and other infrastructure projects, and assist the villagers in setting up poultry and fish farms to supply the terminal's cafeteria. The social gains apparently secured by the Escravos women contrast with the frequent violent and fruitless clashes that have taken place between young men and the police and army.

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