Written by Karoline Tolstrup Sørensen
“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”
“No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.“ (United Nations 1948, 2, l. 20)
This is the text of the 4th and the 5th article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948. The Declaration furthermore states that every human is born equal with fundamental rights to liberty, life, security and freedom to practise their religion and to not be discriminated against based on, for example, gender or belief (United Nations 1948). These might seem like obvious, even simple, statements aimed at enshrining the basic dignity and life of a human, no matter their background. However, in the decades following the Declaration, it has become clear that at times, protecting one aspect of human rights might violate another. A conflict has emerged between upholding rights to cultural and religious freedom and protecting human rights: consider for example the case of genital mutilation in Indonesia as a religious practice being tackled by recent legislative steps (Kine 2016) or the Tanzanian government’s plan to introduce a legal marriage age of 18 years to combat forced child marriage (Human Rights Watch 2014). The 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief was instrumental in cementing religious freedom and further underlined the rights of parents and communities to organise their family life according to their spiritual or religious beliefs by protecting them from discrimination at the hands of the state or other actors (United Nations 1981). This reflects concern for local practices and a wish to respect regional differences, embrace diversity, and honour the value of different societal norms rather than utilising human rights as a means of suppression or of imposing Western norms. However, the Declaration also raises the question of when religious and cultural traditions can be considered harmful enough to warrant acting against these as human rights abuses.
The cruel inhumanity of Trokosi
The word Trokosi is composed of the Ewe word for God (Tro) and slave, virgin or wife (kosi), originating from the west African countries Ghana, Togo and Benin around the 16th or 17th century (FreedomUnited 2018; Sekyiamah 2008). The Trokosi are young girls given by their families to shrines, predominantly in the Volta region of Ghana, as reparation to the gods for sins committed by the family. Sins considered grave enough to demand the offering of a girl can range from theft and adultery to rape and murder. The philosophy behind this tradition is based on crime and punishment as communal responsibilities which means that a person with no direct relation to the crime committed might be offered to appease the gods instead of the culprit. In serious cases, this making of amends can encompass generations of Trokosi girls (Small Bilyeu 1999). Thus, girls as young as ten are taken without their consent and trafficked across the country by their families to live anywhere from three years to their entire life in a religious shrine, where they become the slaves, property and wives of the fetish priest in charge of the shrine (Small Bilyeu 1999; Mensah 2018; FreedomUnited 2018). Since their families are responsible for their upkeep at the shrine, but can rarely afford this, and the priests have no interest in educating, clothing, or feeding them or granting them medical assistance, the girls are in essence subject to degrading inhuman treatment. Once they enter puberty, a ceremony initiates their duties as wives to the priest; thereafter they are raped and might bear children to the shrine who are automatically born as Trokosi (Small Bilyeu 1999). This life of hard labour and sexual servitude does not end until the debt to the gods has been paid, but even if the women are eventually allowed to leave, they have little means to support themselves without any education and are shunned by their previous communities, in some cases forcing them back to the shrine.
Conventions, agreements and action…?
Initial registration of Trokosi girls in the 1990s amounted to some 20,000 girls (Small Bilyeu 1999), whereas more recent assessments from 2008 estimate the number to be around 1400 persons (Sekyiamah 2008). Following international attention to the issue, Ghana outlawed Trokosi practices in 1998, but still no one has been prosecuted in relation to Trokosi shrines (Sekyiamah 2008). Ghana, Togo and Benin all signed the United Nations’ 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention for the Rights of the Child, 1990 (United Nations: Human Rights, n.d.). There is a conflict between the official promises of the countries involved in the Trokosi practice and their lack of action on the violation of rights resulting from the practice. Firstly, seeing as only girls are taken as slaves by the Trokosi shrines, human rights not to be discriminated against based on gender are violated. Secondly, the forced labour and cruel treatment of the girls and women, void of freedom of movement and body, under complete control of the priests and forced to provide sexual services, constitutes degrading treatment, slavery and torture (Small Bilyeu 1999). Moreover, in light of the rights of the child emphasising the best interest of the child, its dignity and its right to special care including food, education and clothing, these abuses stand as grim violations. However, neither the states involved nor the international community has taken any legal action. This issue is compounded by the fact that legal action would require the strongly religious parents to testify against the priests in addition to possibly incriminating themselves, as the priests do not force parents to give up their children. Defenders of the Trokosi custom, mostly male, argue that it is part of Ewe cultural heritage and advocate for its preservation with the argument of safeguarding cultural and religious freedom (Mensah 2018). Although Ghana theoretically recognises the limits of religious freedom if religious practices infringe on the rights and freedoms of people or if they dehumanise and degrade others (Small Bilyeu 1999), the Trokosi system continues to exist, with the only relief for the enslaved girls coming from NGOs and governmental offices negotiating buy-outs and organising education for communities in the region, where, for example, the idea of offering animals instead of girls is tested (Mensah 2018).
Part of a larger struggle
This case represents a particularly grave example of the trade-off between the right to cultural expression and universally agreed-upon human rights. Clearly, the priests, parents and communities practising Trokosi are responsible for the degrading treatment, torture and inhumanity suffered by the enslaved girls, but their situation is emblematic of a larger conflict that is unresolved. Where should the line be drawn between what can be accepted as a local practice and what violates human dignity to a degree intolerable not only to the international community but to locals as well? Perhaps the Trokosi case is particularly stark, as it involves children without any say in determining their own fate. However, in many cultures today, it is an accepted practice to pierce the ears of small children, and in some religions it is common to circumcise boys at a young age, while others practice genital mutilation of young girls and women. Whereas cases of ear piercings are less contested, recent years have seen the debate between religious freedom and human rights rage over the issue of the circumcision of infant boys. One side argues that circumcision is a central part of their religious tradition while the other highlights the absent medical benefit of the procedure and the child’s right to bodily integrity (Mahon and Phelan 2012). The parallel to the debate surrounding female genital mutilation (FGM) is readily apparent. One possible solution to mitigate this struggle is to allow for circumcision after the child has grown to an age where they can draw their own conclusions and make an informed choice.
Another case, currently debated in the U.S. and in some European countries such as Poland, is abortion, which in some instances also runs along the fault lines between religion, culture and human rights (Luscombe 2022; K. Green 2022). Many religious communities utilise passages from the Bible to argue against abortion as an act violating divine law, whereas supporters of abortion might invoke the human right to bodily integrity and autonomy of the woman involved.
Finally, slavery used to be widely accepted and culturally practised across religions, where Christian slave traders trafficked millions of slaves from the African continent and brought them to the new colonies in the U.S, protected by selected passages from the Bible (Rae 2018). This is a tradition abandoned today, thus showcasing that culture and religion can and must adapt to the needs of the society of which they form part.
The answer is therefore not universally applicable but will have to be adapted to the individual cultural tradition and its value to the societal structure, while examining the damages it represents to communal and individual rights. The debates surrounding the issues above are essential to establish the facts and determine whether these practices are based on values a society wishes to uphold or not. At some point in history, religious conformity might have been paramount for the continuation of human tribes and at some point in history, societies weighed the value of enforced, free labour for the development of colonies higher than that of individual freedom. However, these traditions have shifted according to societal norms and to the values which we as humans agreed were important to us. Cultural diversity and religious freedom are central to the establishment of the United Nations and its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but so are an individual’s right to liberty, security and self-determination. Thus, contemporary societal development must guide the implementation of these rights into religious tradition.