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A Morality Paradox? Religious Freedom vs Human Rights.

(Universal Declaration of Human Rights)


The practice of ‘Trokosi’ as found in country visits by the UN Special Rapporteur is a form of religious/ritual servitude that is still practised in parts of Ghana, the exploitation includes the use of the child to sexual purposes by a fetish priest (United Nations Special Rapporteur against Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Ghana , 2013).The practice is seen to have religious connotations associated with African Traditional Religion, such as for the sacrifice of virgin girls for the atonement of sins committed by family or for the benefit of the community. This, however, may be deemed more of a cultural practice associated with ancient Ghanaian tradition that has been normalised into society than one that represents religion. Furthermore, the misconstruction of traditional practice, where animals such as cows were previously sacrificed become replaced due to being less financially burdensome to sacrifice a daughter

(Bilyeu, 1999).

In such ways, the inherent nature of this cultural practice, as opposed to one that can be associated with religion alone is a violation of human rights and an extensive display of gender inequality. The value of women, therefore, is regarded as ‘property’ of the family or male, which can then be given to the ownership of the shrine, fetish priest, and the gods. The practice is a direct violation of human rights, furthermore satisfying the premises of sexual slavery that should be dealt with zero tolerance.

Despite the fact that the Universal Declaration proclaims that "[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. It establishes that "[e]veryone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, politic' and that "[e]veryone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person."" It further provides that "[n]o one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. " The Trokosi system violates the Universal Declaration because the girls taken to the shrines are stripped of their liberty, security of person and dignity, as well as subjected to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by being enslaved to other human beings against their will, having to work under the complete control of the priests, and having to satisfy the priests' sexual desires (Bilyeu, 1999). Therefore, in this way, there is a conflict of human rights objectives, including the right to practice and enjoy culture, religion, and tradition as well as the ‘right to freedom of torture, cruel or inhuman or degrading treatment’ (Article 3, UDHR).

Although the practice is criminalised in both International Policy and in Ghanaian law, Ghana has not yet ratified the Palermo Protocol or the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (2000) (although it is a signatory). Therefore, the policy objectives and terms of non-compliance under the Palermo Protocol are not yet mandatory or binding in Ghana, the nature of being a signatory simply denotes an ‘intention’ to encompass the law. The law in Ghana, as such has encompassed sanctions and illegality regarding this practice, as a violation of the human rights of young girls; violating both women’s rights and the Rights of the Child. The issue, therefore, can also be seen as one of national sovereignty and a lack of International autonomy to regulate and enforce laws, unlike the unique nature of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). However, this is largely contested by member states, especially with respect to the impact of the Western liberal norms and standards that do not understand cultural practices, furthermore agendas that work towards a neo-liberal and Global North agenda without respecting the needs of the Global -South.

Religious Freedom or Human Rights?

Religion is often perceived as a, if not the definitive moral authority on sex in the dominant cultural ethos of the United States (Zimmerman, 2013), when religious groups focus their energies on denouncing sexual exploitation in human trafficking, the moral authority they wield has considerable clout (Zimmerman, 2013). The tremendous influence of the Church in the United States is key to conceptualising legislation, as seen with the Trafficking in Vulnerable Persons Act (TVPA) according to ‘moral imagination’ (Zimmerman, 2013). Henceforth, the gendered rhetorical formation through which the TVPA depicts human trafficking, vulnerability to exploitation, passivity, and powerlessness are not simply attributes of (female) human trafficking victims in a descriptive capacity, rather, these are attributes of women constitutively (Zimmerman, 2013).

The notion held by Horowitz, ‘the battle over worldwide Christian persecution is a battle for the freedom of spread of Christianity has made the paradigmatic Christian a poor and brown third world female rather than the white middle-class Western male that your patronizing detractors paint you to be’ (Horowitz, 2005,p.71). The doctrine, known as the ‘trickle down’ effect, the description, which ‘attributes of the quintessential Christian as female, poor and brown, sexually enslaved women from the third world’ gains the conservative and evangelical Christian constituencies to recognise trafficking in women as persecution of Christian sisters.

The aftermath and consequence of sex slavery often find victims and ex-slaves unable to be accepted due to the shame and ‘evil’ associated with them, albeit the lack of consent or intention to be sex slaves. The inequality of gender has a huge impact on the value given to such women, based on the belief that women must be un-spoiled of virtue for the pleasure of their husbands. The concept, therefore, is embedded with theological norms that spill into societal practice and further enforced in legislation.

However, the Special Rapporteur has found associated misconstruction of religious teachings in Mauritania that further segregate and subordinate vulnerable women into sex slavery, despite the fact that ‘all slaves are equal before Allah... therefore there is no justification for perpetuating slavery’ as held in practices of subordination and slavery in Mauritania (United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, 2009). Furthermore, Julia O’Connell Davidson also emphasises the impact of racial and social exclusion that contributes to these inequalities, caused by the pre-existing historical bias of white privilege and the transatlantic slave trade. Therefore, acting as greater means of the vulnerability of particularly marginalised groups to situations of modern slavery, as opposed to being confined to vulnerability by gender alone. The critique would endorse greater means of protection and prevention for particular groups and although there is existing international policy for the protection of victims. However, the rebuttal by Kevin Bales confines modern slavery to situations of poverty which remains ‘colour-blind’.

In her analysis, Zimmerman focuses on the extent to which Christian religious freedom turns on and if fundamentally constituted by the eradication not only of abusive and exploitative sex but, more generally, of all immoral sex (Zimmerman, 2013). Furthermore, the position also denotes the international norm, according to Horowitz for the conceptions of ‘morality’ (namely, sexual morality) that perpetuates societal and cultural excepted norms. The repercussions of which are seen in issues of health; including reproductive rights, maternal health, and sexual health rights.

Furthermore, there is also an exclusion of any provisions for key vulnerable populations of HIV/AIDS, who are also vulnerable to trafficking for the purpose of prostitution and sex slavery, such as Men who have sex with Men (MSM) and transgender individuals. This can be held as primarily a re-enforcement of a lack of acceptance within the theological understanding of sexuality. Moreover, although gender inequality remains a greater cause of modern slavery as found in country visits of the Special Rapporteur, it may also be argued that there is a lack of reporting on key vulnerable populations due to a lack of recognition within national law.

In conclusion, the significant factor of discriminatory norms that have both cultural and theological understandings of the ‘norm’ have acted in ways to render women ‘equal in the eyes of Allah, unequal in the eyes of man’ (Ali, 2000). The situation of gender inequality that has become an inherent feature of social and legal understandings and practically implemented by the policy is evident by the TVPA and in the nature of terminology of the vulnerable in the Palermo Protocol. However, although there is still a need for the protection from situations of sex slavery, that directly violates the human rights and freedoms that are deemed universal human rights with a ‘Right to Freedom from Inhumane and Degrading Treatment’ (Article 3, UDHR).

Primary Sources

European Parliament, (2014). Sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality. s.l.: European Union.

International Labour Organization, (2009). The cost of coercion. Geneva.s.1.:International Labour Organization.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, (1994-2009). 15 Years of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its causes and consequences, Geneva.s.1.: United Nations.

The World Bank, (2009). Social Development Notes. Conflict, Crime and Violence, s.l.: The World Bank.

UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Ghana. (2013). Ghana Country visit. s.1.: United Nations.

Secondary Sources

Ali, S. S. (2000). Gender and Human Rights in Islam and International Law. Equal Before Allah, Unequal Before Man? Kluwer Law International.

Ali, S. S. (2006). Where is the toilet? Getting down to the basics in accessing women's righs. In A. Hellum, A. S, A. Tsanga, & J. Stewart (Eds.), Paths are made by Walking. Harare: Weavers Press.

Bilyeu, A. S., (1999). Trokosi - The Practice of Sexual Slavery in Ghana: Religious and Cultural Freedom vs. Human Rights. Indiana International & Comparative Law Review , pp. 457-504.

Brysk, A., & Maskey, A. (2012). Slavery Today. Rethinking Trafficking: Patriarchy, Poverty and Private Wrongs in India. Global Dialogue , 14 (2).

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