Infanticide in Ethiopia

For as long as the Kara, Banna and Hamar tribes of Ethiopia have existed, they have practiced infanticide.  Elders of the Kara tribe, for example, will kill a child if his top teeth grow in before his bottom teeth.  The order in which the child’s teeth grow is, apparently, evidence that the child is cursed and must be killed.  The tribes fear that failure to kill “cursed” children will bring ruin to the tribe in the form of drought, lack of food, and death of tribesmen.  Today, local governments in Ethiopia have begun to imprison those tribesmen who participate in these killings, which has saved many children.  However, the killings continue and in at least two cases, the women serving time for the crime are the women who gave birth to the children – not necessarily the persons guilty of murder (although if you ask either mother, she will say that it was her fault).  The practice of infanticide and other rituals considered by the western world to be repugnant raises a lot of issues.  Should we be telling a society that one of its rituals is wrong?  Is it our place to say?  Or is protecting the lives of children who cannot protect themselves more important?

5 comments

  1. I could see an argument being made that, as isolated, indigenous groups, they may have a religious right to continue such a practice. Likely, it had the effect of keeping the population static or on par with the available resources. But I think the argument could be avoided by finding ways, other than jail, to phase out the practice. The effort of a group of Christians committed to managing an orphanage and finding adoptive homes for the condemned children is effective: it saves the children while still letting the tribes maintain their beliefs.

    But that raises a second issue. Africa suffers from a number of superstitions and irrational beliefs, some of which bring great harm to others (e.g. that having sex with virgins can cure HIV/AIDS). The deep, reactive fear that forces this practice of killing cursed children could be considered one of them. Education is much needed in order to overcome these harmful beliefs.

  2. I do not believe the infanticide mentioned in this post should be viewed through cultural or societal lenses. I do not believe it is the society of the tribes people that concerns us but the inhumanity displayed in the infanticide that shakes our conscience. I think this post highlights a modern example, similar to many others the world has witnessed throughout its history, of situations in which society erodes the morality of people. The reasons these tribes kill the children are rooted in certain hardships mentioned by the post, and for a reason unknown to many of us, certain infants have become the scapegoats for these hardships. I understand how one could argue that society influences our notions of right and wrong and effectively molds the conscience of its members. The fact that the two women mentioned in the post, members of the tribal societies, say that the death of their children was their fault contradicts such an argument. It is immaterial whether they believe it is their fault because they gave birth to a child who grew his upper teeth first as opposed to one who would grow his lower teeth first (assuming the women maintain tribal beliefs that the child is cursed), or for another reason. The feeling of fault shared by these women, as members of the society, demonstrates some degree of guilt. This is a product of their human conscience, that is independent of and contrary to the beliefs held by the only society these women have known.

  3. I think the argument that this type of practice is used to control the population and make sure that there are enough resources for all is a practical reason, but I just cannot accept it. I do not think that anything is truly gained by the practice of infanticide. Like Amanjit said, this type of behavior “shakes our conscience.” I do not think that we disapprove of this type of behavior just because it is different from what we know, but rather because it is so extremely adverse to how we view the value of human life. What really does not sit right with me is the fact that they will kill a child if their teeth grow in opposite from what they think is correct, because the child is believed to be cursed. This reason seems completely irrational to me. I am a firm believer that it is important to be accepting of others cultural and societal beliefs, but when those beliefs revolve around infanticide it makes it hard to be accepting.

  4. Rather, my point is that addressing the problem completely devoid of any acknowledgment of the cultural identity of the group will not solve the problem and likely would be more hurtful than helpful. In line with the above quote, these tribal elders are likely male, imposing their will on mothers. Putting these women in jail and telling them that they are wrong because we/the government says so is not the answer. Why should these mothers be held legally accountable for a decision that has largely been taken out of their hands? Are they supposed to fight off their tribal elders and the rest of their tribe? Should they leave the village they have known all their lives and start somewhere new, with likely no education, possibly with the stigma of having a living “cursed”child? If the child survives the attempt and the mother is in jail — who is going to care for this cursed child? The tribe? The government? Giving birth to a cursed child brings these women two impossible choices: the death of their child AND jail, or ostracism from their tribe. How is that morally right?

  5. I do believe my comment has been severely misinterpreted. By no means am I condoning the practice by mentioning that the practice may have roots based in indigenous culture or religion. Furthermore, the fact that the practice may serve as population control is not a justification, but an acknowledgment that such practices are common throughout human history, especially in world that is pre-birth control:

    Infanticide, the killing of newborn babies, was the most universal solution to periodic overpopulation in pre-industrial societies. It was used to control population and, at times, the sex ratio where the sexual division of labor dictated. Some groups practiced infanticide because, in the absence of medical techniques, it was less risky and painful than abortion. Among some Australian tribes and among the Cheyenne and other Northern Plain Indians, infanticide was practiced so the tribe could maintain its mobility. The Pima of Arizona practiced infanticide when a child was born after the death of its father—thereby relieving the mother of the added economic burden. When practiced, the decision was almost always made by men, and there is little evidence of male infanticide in any society whereas female infanticide was practiced in Tahiti, Formosa, India, and North Africa. It is significant to note that infanticide was not just a ‘primitive’ practice; Aristotle and Plato recommended it for eugenic reasons. And if infanticide is not acceptable today, it may be because we have better birth control methods, not because we are morally superior. http://yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1982/6/82.06.03.x.html

    Rather, my point is that addressing the problem completely devoid of any acknowledgment of the cultural identity of the group will not solve the problem and likely would be more hurtful than helpful. In line with the above quote, these tribal elders are likely male, imposing their will on mothers. Putting these women in jail and telling them that they are wrong because we/the government says so is not the answer. Why should these mothers be held legally accountable for a decision that has largely been taken out of their hands? Are they supposed to fight off their tribal elders and the rest of their tribe? Should they leave the village they have known all their lives and start somewhere new, with likely no education, possibly with the stigma of having a living “cursed”child? If the child survives the attempt and the mother is in jail — who is going to care for this cursed child? The tribe? The government? Giving birth to a cursed child brings these women two impossible choices: the death of their child AND jail, or ostracism from their tribe. How is that morally right?

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