The concept of ‘rights’ has become an increasingly contentious term in African settings, as elsewhere. The individualized manner in which universal rights are often framed explains much of the controversy in African contexts, which many would describe as more ‘community-oriented’ than ‘individually-oriented’. This taken-for-granted categorization of African and other milieux has however begun to be problematized in the literature, and its dangers as a less than holistic perspective are now obvious. For instance, Corrêa, Petchesky and Parker [1
] draw our attention to the fact that rights are neither completely communal, nor totally individual. Rejecting the dichotomy between the individual and the community, they instead put forth a different vision – one that “encompasses both
singularity and interdependence … [E]conomic and social rights accruing to communities (for safe water, health care, livelihoods) are ultimately about the individual bodies that need these resources to live. Rights are always individual and social at the same time, just as persons are” ([1
This refreshing observation is also at the heart of our arguments elsewhere [2
], that individual rights in many African contexts are not stand-alone properties or events. They are linked to, and embodied in the community, which often sees the individual as part of it. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights [3
] also recognizes the interrelationship between the community and the rights of individuals and peoples. It thus clearly states that the rights and freedoms of individuals are only meaningful when exercised with due regard to the security, values, and interests of the community. Although rights are often simultaneously individual and social, the dissimilar weights assigned to each of these in varying contexts highlight the need for more culturally-sensitive approaches to the realization of rights in different societies.
In this paper, we continue from our previous discussion [2
] on how rights are ‘weighted’ and constituted in indigenous African cultures. We aim to deepen the understanding of ‘rights’ as a socio-cultural axis upon which many discourses turn. Such an understanding has become particularly critical given unsituated claims that “no individual, family, kinship group, clan or community ‘owns’ the body of another person” ([4
]. p115). This paper is thus an attempt at developing an ‘inventory’ of rights in African cultures as a prelude to the generation both of a holistic theory of rights as well as a research agenda that can recognize the multifaceted nature of rights.
The myriad contestations around rights have often invisibilized the existence of rights or entitlements within indigenous cultures. Consequently, modern declarations on human rights have often proceeded without reference to the cultural content of rights, the existence of rights in African indigenous backgrounds, and the embodiment of certain key rights in the community itself. Our interest thus centers on ‘indigenous’ rights for, as we have previously contended [2
], the strong allegiance of many to their indigenous cultures and the generally weak and unrealistic modern frameworks for the realization of rights often lead to their search for rights within the indigenous cultural space. The supposedly protective formal law courts, the idealized shielding and fair modern state, and the global human rights movements often have limited relevance for the everyday realities of people in local communities in Africa. Recourse to indigenous axes of rights has thus remained the major tactic through which individuals stake, guarantee, and achieve claims to their rights. An examination of how rights are framed from the perspectives of local communities, it is hoped, will provide deeper understanding of indigenous world-views on sexual and reproductive health rights, and therefore, of how to take steps toward their realization.
In focusing on ‘indigenous’ rights, we recognize the complexity of the notion of ‘tradition’, given the vast structural changes that African cultures have experienced between the pre-colonial era and the present time. Borrowing from Gyekye [5
], Nzegwu [6
] notes the politics of customs (upon which ‘indigenous’ phenomena are based), contextualizing this politics while observing that “there is nothing static or stable about traditions and customs”, rather, “the root of the problem lies in the way that present generations have chosen to preserve their customs or traditions” ([6
]. p139). In Gyekye’s words: ‘the preservation of [a belief or practice], in part or in whole, would depend very much on the attitude the new generation adopts toward it. … This means that continuity and survival of a pristine cultural product depends on the normative considerations that will be brought to bear on it by subsequent generations’ ([5
]. p221). As Nzegwu emphasizes, ‘Gyekye’s point is that customs are rarely received and preserved in their old forms. This tells us that our focus should be on the attitude and normative values that [individuals bring] to bear on receiving and deploying these customs, rather than on the customs themselves’ ([6
In our discussion, we will devote our attention to the Ubang and Igbo customs themselves (as many readers will presumably be unfamiliar with them) and the attitudes and normative values surrounding them.