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This article is part of the supplement: Contextualising rights: the lived experience of sexual and reproductive health rights

Open Access Open Badges Research

Unpacking rights in indigenous African societies: indigenous culture and the question of sexual and reproductive rights in Africa

Chi-Chi Undie1* and Chimaraoke O Izugbara2

Author Affiliations

1 Population Council, General Accident House, Ralph Bunche Road, P.O. Box 17643, 00500 Nairobi, Kenya

2 African Population and Health Research Center, APHRC Campus, Kirawa Road, off Peponi Road, P.O. Box 10787, 00100 Nairobi, Kenya

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BMC International Health and Human Rights 2011, 11(Suppl 3):S2  doi:10.1186/1472-698X-11-S3-S2

Published: 16 December 2011



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. This paper is 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.


We use an interpretive ethnographic approach built on three sources of data: 1) our continuing ethnographic work among two distinct ethnic groups in southeastern Nigeria – the Ubang and the Igbo; 2) informal conversational interviews with individuals from a range of African countries; and 3) a review of relevant literature based on African cultures which provides a context for some of the issues we raise.


An examination of selected indigenous rights, entitlements, or privileges among the Ubang and Igbo illustrates indigenous culture as a key, but often neglected, axis of rights, as a critical framework for understanding human relationships with rights, and as a resource for, and challenge to, contemporary programmatic efforts focusing on universalized notions of rights. Understanding or interpreting rights in African settings within the framework defined by contemporary human rights discourse poses steep challenges to making progress in the realization of sexual and reproductive rights.


Despite the potential dangers of privileging group rights over individual rights, when important rights are vested in the community; rights, entitlements, and privileges can also be recognized through community experiences, and realized through engagement with communities. Building on communal conceptualizations of rights in order to realize an even wider range of rights remains a largely unexplored strategy which holds promise for the achievement of sexual and reproductive health rights.