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Infanticide among Indigenous Groups

South America

There are about 240 ethnic groups in Brazil. Accordingly, there is a diversity of indigenous groups which, despite colonization 500 years ago, have minimal contact with other groups or the Brazilian society in general. The practice of infanticide, extremely prevalent among these groups, has been widely questioned by legal authorities. Saulo Feitosa and colleagues describe a seminar in 2005 on legal pluralism during which an attorney working in Brazil asked a representative of the International Labor Organization (ILO) how to approach cases of infanticide among indigenous groups. The ILO representative responded that human rights should be respected and infanticide should be addressed, however, an anthropologist in attendance disagreed and argued that indigenous mothers have “full autonomy” on deciding whether their children should live.

Mothers of the Yanomami, for example, give birth in the forest. If the mother does not “welcome the child into her arms”, it is as though the child were never born. The anthropologist explained that children permitted to survive are given a second “birth” by being accepted into the community. Rejection by the mother after birth precludes the community’s acceptance. In a sense, the life of a child is a cultural “construction”. There are rarely records of mothers being prosecuted for infanticide as the act is seen as a communal decision.10

Girls born to single Zuruhua mothers, another Brazilian indigenous group, are almost always marked for death because their lives are considered too difficult, both for themselves and for the community. When a female is born to a single mother, she is left still attached to the placenta in a thicket until either the mother or a relative kills her. The societal and cultural expectation of this practice indicates that an absent father precludes a daughter from being accepted into society. A boy with no father, however, is allowed to live, although he is given a lower status. He is saved because of the perception of male usefulness. In the one case of a Zuruhua widow who chose to raise her two daughters, both girls committed suicide as adults. Because this group has a long history of high rates of suicide, children learn the concept very early and often role play their own deaths and funerals. The community’s relationship with suicide stems from a massacre that took place over one hundred years ago.11

While it is widely known that females are more likely than males to be victims of infanticide, among the Waiwai, the fifth child of a family is sacrificed if he or she is the same gender as the older four siblings, regardless of sex. Because breastfeeding for about two years is common, subsequent pregnancies are postponed. If a child is conceived during this period, a mother might choose to kill it. In these indigenous populations, infants are killed when the mother is unwilling or unable to care for the child, or when the baby would be unable to survive in the environment into which he or she was born (whether because of a birth defect or a deceased mother).12

The Guanas in South America reportedly buried most of the female children alive when birth rates needed to be controlled. In this society families may have up to four children, one of them at the whim of the mother; however, the decision to have three more is up to the father.13 For the Ayoreo, a tribe in Bolivia and Paraguay, the mothers and female kin chose the circumstances over which they would perform infanticide. The women never reported on their own acts, though, as it would “make them sad”.14

Conversely, when beloved babies died, the Laymi, an Amerindian people of northern Bolivia, buried deceased children (called anjelito or little angels) with white paper wings attached to their shrouds so they could fly to heaven.15 This practice also was common among many groups in Brazil. As discussed in Chapter 6, it was thought that a child’s death was a cause for joy and celebration. Consequently, mothers were discouraged from grieving openly.

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