Buried alive

July 21, 2008

Brazilian YWAMers battling for the basic human rights of indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin have just won a major victory that could save hundreds of young lives. At a hearing of the plenary session for the Human Rights Commission in Brasilia late last week, the proposed ‘Muwaji’s Law’ to outlaw infanticide was officially recognised and endorsed. 

A moving demonstration inside the government chambers in the nation’s capital displayed over 100 baby-sized dolls to represent the children who had been sacrificed in the last six months. Indigenous men, women and children packed the public seating area during the hearing, waiting to hear if they would be recognised as citizens deserving basic human rights, a right thus far denied them.

Braulia Ribeiro, speaker at last year’s Festival of the Nations in Herrnhut, has championed the cause of the Suruwahá Indians in the Amazon since living among them in the late 1908’s. She and her colleagues, Marcia and Edson Suzuki, have led a national and international campaign to raise awareness of the widespread practice of infanticide. Until now the practice has been allowed by the Brazilian government, influenced by doctors and anthropologists opposed to interference in local cultures.

Muwaji’s Law is based upon the fundamental right to life that is sanctioned in both The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Brazilian Federal Constitution. The law is named after a Suruwahá woman who refused to bury alive her own baby.


Braulia was recently in Liverpool speaking at The Big Hope event, and met with human rights lawyers on the issue. Dozens of Brazilian children are buried alive each year, she has explained. They are suffocated with leaves, poisoned, or abandoned to die in the forest because of their gender, physical or mental disability, or other circumstance beyond their control. This systematic infanticide is carried out by indigenous tribes who believe it is necessary in order to rid their community of evil spirits.

Certain tribes believe that some babies are ‘cursed’ and therefore do not have souls. Such children include those with physical disabilities, unwanted females, babies born to unwed mothers, twins or triplets. These ‘cursed’ children are sometimes smothered by leaves, poisoned, buried alive by parents or simply left to die of exposure.

Dr. Marcos Pelegrinia, a doctor working in the Yanomami tribe district, stated that almost a hundred children from that tribe alone were killed by their mothers in 2004.

Some anthropologists argue that infanticide by indigenous tribes should be respected as a cultural practice. Dr. Erwin Frank, an anthropology professor at the Federal University of Roraima, Brazil, says, “This is their way of life and we should not judge them on the basis of our values. The difference between the cultures should be respected.”

The Suzukis, who worked for over 20 years with the Suruwahá Indians, describe their

mission saying, “We are fig
hting against doctors and anthropologists who say we must not interfere with the culture of the people. While we respect the cultures and the differences, above all we respect human beings with no distinction.” 

The exact number of annual infanticides cannot be pinpointed, say the Suzukis. Official agencies do not step in and stop the abuse for fear of meddling in local customs. As a result, the deaths of many babies are officially recorded as death by ‘malnutrition’ or ‘undetermined causes’.


The Suzukis themselves saved from death and adopted one girl, Hakani, whose story has become the feature of a documentary called Hakani: buried alive-a survivor’s story, (see www.hakani.org). 

Now a thirteen-year-old, Hakani-which means ‘Smile’- was still unable to walk or talk by the age of two, prompting tribal leaders to conclude she had no soul and to order her parents to kill her.

They committed suicide by eating a poison root rather than obey the order. Hakani’s 15-year-old brother was then told he had to kill her. He dug a hole to bury her next to the village hut, which is where the tribe usually buries animals, and hit her over the head with a machete to knock her out. However, the boy could not go through with the killing. Hakani’s grandfather then shot her with an arrow. He was so upset he also tried to commit suicide.

But Hakani survived, although her wound became infected. She was left to live like an animal in the forest for three years. She survived only because a brother smuggled food to her.

The Suzukis begged Funasa, the Brazilian government’s health department, to let them take Hakani out of the tribe to get medical help. Warned that they could be responsible for the child’s death, Funasa eventually relented. Under the Suzukis’ care, Hakani was walking and talking within a year. While she suffers from a condition affecting brain development, she is now able to attend a mainstream school.

The Hakani documentary, made by David Cunningham, was influential in the Human Rights Commission hearing. The president of the commission said he had found it very moving.  

The commission will now present the law, outlawing infanticide and guaranteeing human rights to indigenous peoples, before the national congress when it reconvenes next season.  

Till next week,

Till next week,

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