When rights collide (a functionalist perspective)
The Tension Between Children’s Rights and The Right to Freedom of Religion
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Key words: Africa, politics, religion, identity, indigenous, society, ideas, ritual, violence.
Tchando, the scarification master, walks toward the tree where his knife awaits. Despite the rainy season, the day is warm and speckled with delicate clouds the wind disperses across the sky like a child gently tearing apart cotton candy. Engulfed in the deep green of the tall grass and large trees surrounding the village, Tchando squats and begins sharpening his blade.
Barefoot on the dry dirt, their skirts blowing in the wind, two women console a crying two year-old as they make their way over to the same tree. Yiriporiwo tells his aunts he wants to go home, but they continue walking towards Tchando.
“We will go home immediately,” they assure him while pulling off his shirt and passing him to Tchando’s assistant. She sits with her legs spread out on the dusty ground and grass, and readily receives the boy and nestles him between her legs.
Blade in hand, the scarification master approaches Yiriporiwo and carefully kneels on the boy’s arms to prevent him from moving.
Then, in one swift movement and without hesitation, he sweeps the small stone blade across the child’s face.
The state of Benin overlooks the Gulf of Guinea, surrounded by Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso and Niger. The city of Natitingou is a curious medley of customs. Its 100,000 inhabitants are a mix of Christians, Muslims, and followers of ancient animistic belief systems.
I traveled for hours to reach the surrounding area of Natitingou during my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, riding among other travelers fretting about yellow fever mosquitoes. When we arrived, I heard villagers saying that that very night, all the wizards of Africa would take the forms of animals such as eagles, gazelles, and lions and gather to perform their dark rituals. In order to counter the force of this magical union, people would unite to recite long collective prayers.
While wandering around the villages, I observed clusters of thatch-roofed houses, expanses of grassland, and many inhabitants whose most noticeable facial feature is a pattern of scars. Confused about the ubiquity of the markings, I asked my interpretor what they meant. That’s when he introduced me to the man known as the “scarification master:” Tchando.
Tchando explained that as a part of the Waaba’s belief system, their totem had prescribed the ritual of scarification, which can be understood as the marking of specific parts of the body with a pattern of scars to differentiate the tribe from others and to bring protection to tribe members. This ritual is usually performed at an early age in order to initiate children into the community. The children who participate in this ritual do not have a choice. For the tribe, it is a matter of principle and identity.
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent covenants are considered the foundation of the International Bill of Human Rights. The statutes contained in the declaration have given rise to a series of both non-binding and binding declarations referenced or quoted in a growing number of national and international laws and treaties protecting individual human rights.
The protection of human rights is commonly rooted in the need to provide respect for human dignity. Each individual must be allowed to conceive and pursue his or her own subjective vision of right and wrong without any external interference. Human dignity is thus equated to the autonomy an individual himself has, not as a member of a community or a social group.
Consistently, all human beings are born with equal dignity and certain unalienable rights which are valid regardless of the time and place of birth, whether in New York during the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 or the village of Natitingou, Benin, 2015.
Totemism, the Waaba’ s religion, consists of the mystic association between a determined group of people and an animal specie which has a material representation, called a totem. Despite his role as scarification master and clan leader, Tchando was not authorized to discuss the totem’s appearance with uninitiated outsiders incapable of speaking the language of the totem. However, since the Totem is a representation of a particular past situation that symbolizes the community or its founder, Tchando indirectly talked about the clan’s totem as he explained the tribe’s origin.
“Our ancestor got here alone,” Tchando said. “He lived in the forest with dangerous animals. He saved the life of plenty of men who feared the animals. Animals could eat them because they had no means to defend themselves, but our ancestor taught them how to protect themselves.
In gratitude, they gave him a woman. He then went back to his birthplace to gather all his things and settle down in his new village. Once he returned, he told his fellow villagers that they were now secure.
One evening, while people were sleeping, the totem fell from the sky. Everybody heard the noise, and our ancestor asked them to help him find a beautiful place from which the Totem could protect the community.”
From this point forward, the community became subject to the protection of the clan’ s totem, the entity they consult to decide what must be done to preserve peace, good fortune and to avoid evil. Rituals such as the scarification mandated for the children of the tribe produce a radical alteration of moral and religious character, "sanctifying" them through suffering, admitting them to the sacred life of the clan and ultimately placing them under the protection of the totem.
On the next day of my first visit, Tchando was preparing to perform this ritual on a child whose parents believed that he was losing too much weight and was therefore in mortal danger.
In many countries the world over, religions and belief systems allow human beings to find a referential framework for the meaning of life. Although in Benin almost half of the population is Christian, many people adhere to animistic religions, which find expression in lifestyle choices difficult for Westerners to comprehend.
According to Durkheim, the experience of the healing power of primordial collective rituals, in which men become more confident because they feel themselves stronger, is one of the driving forces that instills belief in human beings. A moral code, symbolism, and language are products of this transformative experience, which binds participants into a collective.
In this sense, in Natitingou, the scarification ritual also transforms partial tribe members into members entirely accepted by the group. Those lacking the scars characteristic to the tribe are not granted the full standing of agents in their society. For the Waaba, the individual does not exist alone. He is part of the whole.
The United Nations' 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history since 195 countries have ratified the convention. These countries commit to guaranteeing and protecting children's rights and hold themselves accountable for this commitment before the international community. Children’s rights give protection to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and allow parents to provide direction for their children in exercising their rights while raising their children in conformity with their own convictions. This should be done in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, in its best interests and, as emphasized by the convention, free from all forms of violence.
On the other hand, the right to freedom of religion is defined in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights thus: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and freedom to voluntarily manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” However, freedom of religion is not an absolute right. It can be limited for the good of others by
states, which are entitled to determine whether said right is legally binding: “Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subjected only to limitations prescribed by law when necessary to protect public safety, order, health, morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”
Consequently, in a democratic society this right is balanced to ensure that it does not violate other rights. In practice, as evidenced by the case of the Waaba, drafting laws regarding competing rights in the exercise of religious freedom may be affected by the importance a society subscribes to the religion in question and the nature of the competing interests. For this reason, the “best interest” of a child and the meaning of “violence” within the framework of religion can often be a subject of debate.
That same day of the scarification ceremony, I arrived at the village early in the morning. As the sun rose higher and beat down on Tchando’s blade, the community waited for the child to arrive. At 9:00 a.m., Yiriporiwo’s mother and aunts brought him into the clearing. The community greeted the woman and began the procedures leading up to the ritual. Yiriporiwo moved restlessly and gave distressed cries, reacting to the shift in his environment.
It is uncommon to scarify children during the rainy season unless there is a special case or urgent need. The Waaba believe that totems are not accessible during this part of the year, and the chance that they would respond to prayers and offerings is very low. Exceptions can be made for sickness, however, as the ritual is believed to cure ill children or victims of any physical anomaly.
Tchando explained that he serves as an intermediary in the process. The totem itself would act through him.
While people gathered under the tree chosen as the ritual location, Yiriporiwo’s mother remained seated in front of the main house, from which her baby’s screams could be heard, but the bloody scenes could be avoided.
As she waited, a fellow villager and a child, seated on the floor, repeated: “It’s the wind, it’s the wind.” The Waaba believe that the winds bring illnesses. The clearing was silent save for the murmuring of the villagers and the whistling of the wind before Tchando began his work. The villagers also ascribe particular negative influence to trees. Adults might express to a child undergoing scarification that the tree was able to hurt him, but that the adults would cut or burn the tree to mitigate the pain the tree was causing him or her.
The conflict between children’ s rights and freedom of religion evidenced by the practices of the Waaba reflects the clash between cultural relativism and pluralism on one side of the spectrum and universalism on the other. Since the eve of the adoption of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, anthropologists have argued against the United Nation’s universalistic assertions, criticizing how these definitions have been deemed applicable to all human beings and not simply a statement of rights based on Western cultural values.
As early as the 17th century during the battles for what are now understood as human rights, Christian rules, morality and metaphysics were increasingly ceasing to inspire Western society. This paradigm shift began with the rise of a new sort of religion: the cult of the self and pursuit of individual desires. Paradoxically, as a result of modernization, people became more interconnected, but their sense of collective participation diminished.
In any discussion about belief systems, such as human rights, religion or traditional cultural practices it is crucial to acknowledge that they generally appeal to a higher order, morality or authority, they might claim to be universally applicable and the highest authority over human life.
Essentially, these can be systems of hegemony. Therefore, in pluralistic societies, these assertions create conflict between the various value positions, as each becomes exclusive and competitive, pitting adherents against non-adherents.
Relativist argument supports the widely held opinion that individualism is at the core of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, making it inconsistent with those societies where the collective still matters. People define their identities through dialogues, values, symbols, and models of living shared by the members of their community, the very same elements that develop their culture.
Failure to appreciate these differences can damage group members denied of their practices, diminish their dignity and project an inferior image that can distort and oppress their culture. According to relativists, what counts as a moral or value and defines its importance depends on the consensus of a given society.
As Tchando began the ritual, Yiriporiwo’s screams rang through the field, but the onlookers remained unfazed. Minutes passed, and the scarification master did not pause. The toddler’s face dripped with blood, and his screams continued, sometimes faint, sometimes piercing, but Tchando worked on, resting only to splash the blood from Yiriporiwo’s face with water.
To move the ritual forward, the villagers attempted to soothe Yiriporiwo by asking him to calm down or bribing him with candy. Some switched tactics and threatened to cut his lungs if he wouldn’t be quiet. Many told him to “shut up.”
His aunts, however, tried to empower their nephew, pointing out his bravery and highlighting the fact that foreigners had come to see him. One villager looked at me and said, “His name is Yiriporiwo (white in the native tongue), and consequently, the day of his ceremony, his spirit has attracted a white man.”
A thirteen-year-old girl watching the knife carve patterns into the two-year-old’s face and arm remembered the day of her scarification. “If I had known the amount of pain that I was going to feel,” she said, “I would have not let them do it to me.”
Village children wandered around the clearing and amongst the houses near where the ritual was taking place, unaffected by the crying child, continuing to joke and play. Few were interested enough to watch the procedure.
As I observed the Waaba scarification ritual as a Western outsider, Yiriporiwo’s protests ringing in my ears, I was determined to keep silent and observe, keen to understand the meaning of the ritual and the significance it held for the community.
At one point Yiriporiwo began coughing, and I called out to Rogatien, my translator, to express my fear that the blood might prevent the toddler from breathing. Rogatien told me to relax. “The Waaba have been performing the scarification ceremony for a long time. They know what they are doing.”
This was the only moment in which I questioned the events unfolding before me. I realized that viewing the situation through a lens of religion influenced by human rights concepts might give rise to an intellectual and moral conflict between the right to freedom of religion the Waaba enjoyed and the children’s rights they were seemingly ignoring. Indeed, some argue that while religious liberty has opened the world of different faiths and creeds to all people, it has created a space where abuse can flourish under the banner of freedom of religion.
When Tchando set down his knife and finished, the child’s aunt moved him to where he was going to be washed. Yiriporiwo was in shock. “He wants to leave!” his aunt said. As the villagers laughed, the newly scarred toddler walked toward his mother amid calls from his aunt to return. “Nothing more will be done to you!” she said.
Yiriporiwo’s mother stood up from her seat and calmed her son. Together, they walked towards their community, and the child was washed and clothed by his mother. Once some antimony had been applied to Yiriporiwo’s face, the villagers were asked to leave so the child would understand the ritual had ended.
As the baby and his mother left the clearing, the villagers talked about how nervous Yiriporiwo was and asserted that if they had delayed the ritual, the child would not have survived his illness. The scarification master agreed. “Have you seen how much weight he has lost?” he asked. “It is serious, the evil has attacked him!”
Our cultural conditioning can be difficult to escape if we are not flexible enough to take a step back and attempt impartiality. The cultural perspective in which we were raised could lead us to emotionally driven conclusions rather than accepting the reality of a different way of life. Scarification forms an essential component of the Waaba’ s life and is inextricably linked to their vision of the world. In such a context, liberal concepts are out of place and could potentially do more harm than good.
Rogatien himself was not immune to the tension between human rights and freedom of religion presented by the ritual, nor did the villagers accept him unconditionally due to his different beliefs. In the middle of the procedure, one of the village women looked at the interpreter and laughed.
“Despite being one of us, you do not dare to look at the ritual; you hide your eyes,” she said. “Do you hide yourself from your own culture?”
The interpreter told me he was raised in the city and, despite knowing about this ritual, he had never before seen how it unfolds. Rogatien had not escaped The French Enlightenment philosophy taught at the school where he studied, and he believed that scarification should be banned on children and performed only on adults who demand it.
The scarification ritual is not dwelt upon among the Waaba after it has concluded. As a foreigner, I had barely begun to process the experience when all the villagers had already changed their clothes and their celebration music had started. I began to pack up my equipment, preparing to retreat into the familiarity of my own world.
One year later, I contacted Tchando and asked about Yiriporiwo. “He is strong and has acquired a good shape,” Tchando told me. “I was very happy to see him and I wanted you to see him yourself, but since the rains started, they left for Nigeria.
“He is going to have a little brother. His mother is already pregnant.”