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The Naked Option: examples of activism

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The Naked Option, Last Resort documentary was screened at the International Images Film Festival for Women (IIFF) in Harare this week. The documentary is a bold inspiration to the many women’s groups and movements across Africa that have taken up protest as part of their activist campaigns. Directed by Candace Schermerhorn and set in Nigeria’s Delta region, which is very rich in oil, the documentary chronicles the challenges grassroots women, and the environment face at the hands of oil companies operating in this region.

The women were pushed to protest due to the high level of environmental degradation caused by oil companies in the Niger delta who flared out gas into the air, polluting water and land. As a result farming and fishing was no longer viable for the women. Another factor that brought outrage was the companies’ reluctance in employing their husbands, brothers and sons. In the documentary the women said that the only benefit they derived from Chevron’s operation in the community was the heat produced when they flared gas. They would dry their cassava using this heat; a process, which usually took days, using the sun’s heat, would only take 5 hours. To them, in as much as this flared gas was a major threat to their environment and health, they saw it as the only direct benefit to their community. However, there then came a time when they were not allowed to enter the oil company’s premises so they could dry or collect their cassava.

In South Africa they famously say ‘Wathintha umfazi wathintha imboko’ (you strike a rock you strike a woman). With all these misgivings about the oil company’s operations, the women took it upon themselves to protest at Chevron’s premises. They spent weeks on the site and disrupted the company’s operations. They gained the attention of the company when they resorted to stripping naked during the protests. In the documentary one of the activists said, “Naked I came to this world, naked I leave”, to show how they had removed the shyness of being naked in peoples eyes as well as their determination. In their tradition it is taboo to strip naked, especially an elderly woman. An example was given that if an elderly woman is offended and strips naked in front of their offender they would have cursed the offender. This group of women protesting comprised of women of all ages, and elderly women were also a part of the group. Thus them stripping naked brought the attention of local and international media and the oil companies too who agreed to sign MOUs with the women where they made ‘empty’ promises. Empty as in up to when the documentary was screened in 2011; none of those promises had been achieved.

This documentary shows the power of women coming together. It took a few minutes for those women to decide they were going to invade Chevron’s premises and then when they managed to stop the company’s operations the women would take 12 hour duties to guard and protest within the premises giving each other time to attend to their household chores.

The Naked Option is a great inspiration to women’s activism and to also question corporate responsibility. Often companies come to extract minerals within communities and concentrate on making the minimum operational costs at the expense of the community’s health, environment and development. My mind went to the families in Chiadzwa and I felt that Sheila Mutsenhu, the lady who stripped naked in front of the US Ambassador in Mutare earlier this year protesting against sanctions in Zimbabwe, should have better directed her efforts. Her being a citizen in the Manicaland province where Chiadzwa diamond mines are located, her zeal would be more beneficial if directed to the cause of women’s issues in the area. Maybe one day she will lead a group of the Manica women to protest demanding better living conditions.

This year is the 12th edition of the International Images Film Festival for Women (IIFF) and it will run from the 23rd to the 31st of August in Harare. It will move to Bulawayo from the 5th to the 7th of September. You can download the programme here.

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