Liberia - Journalist Threatened for FGM Coverage

Mae Azango has won international acclaim for her work, but faces ongoing criticism and death threats at home for challenging her own culture about FGM.

Mae Azango receives an award from AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll

Mae Azango receives an award from AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll
- Photo: Copyright Michael Nagle Getty Images for CPJ.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS) Liberian Journalist Mae Azango is no longer in hiding but she still receives death threats.

"I am not afraid for my life in particular but I am afraid for the life of my 10-year-old daughter," Azango said quietly in a recent interview here, on the sidelines of an awards event. "If they cannot get to you, they are going to get to somebody close to you. For now, my daughter doesn't live with me."

Her problems and prominence began on March 8, 2012, when her story on Liberian tribes that continue the traditional practice of female genital cutting--known as mutilation by critics--was published in the newspaper FrontPage Africa. In addition to writing for FrontPage Africa, Azango is a reporter for the English-language publication NewNarratives.

The piece angered many Liberians who accused Azango of exposing secrets and violating a cultural taboo.

"They said I sold my country to white people and I made plenty of money, that's why they are after me," Azango said in late November, while visiting New York to receive an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists for the story that has stirred so much controversy.

Azango is glad her work has won worldwide recognition but is sorry she has so little support at home. "It's good to receive this award, but what does it mean for my country? They don't care! I shouldn't be receiving this award, according to them," she said.

'Voice of the Voiceless'

Since 2002 Azango has worked to expose what is faced by ordinary people, particularly women and girls, who have been victimized by issues not openly discussed in Liberia.

"I consider myself as the voice of the voiceless," she said. "The women are so ashamed of what is happening to them and they won't dare to speak out. Sadly, for these women the damage has been done but today I am talking for the future generations."

Female genital mutilation, known as FGM, is mainly performed on girls age 3-11. Sometimes it is performed at even younger ages and as late as during a first pregnancy in numerous countries in the Middle East and Africa. Although FGM has been long associated with Islam, the practice predates Islamic culture, which forbids body mutilation. Some Christian and animist cultures also practice it.

FGM may range from the removal of the tip of the clitoris, a total clitorectomy, removal of surrounding tissue, to enfibulation (sewing up the labia to make the opening smaller).

Azango said that much of the media celebration surrounding her is owing to her insider status. If she were a white woman, she says nobody would have cared about her work, since the basic story of FGM is by now so widely known and told. But because she is "an African woman witnessing the cultural practices from inside" that made her a "credible source to the world."

Escaping FGM

Azango said she herself escaped mutilation thanks to her mother, who attended university and lived in an urban area.

"If I had lived in a village, my parents wouldn't have asked my permission and I would have gone through it" she said. "Women don't have voices" in remote areas.

Genital mutilation is customary in her father's tribe, but not in her mother's. Among the 16 tribes in Liberia, 10 practice FGM, she added.

After Azango's story broke and she became the target of threats, the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf--the first elected female head of state in Africa--announced an indefinite suspension of genital cutting. Azango said international media coverage of her case, along with pressure from advocacy groups, compelled the government to make the announcement.

The government promised to launch a campaign to stop the practice and to consider alternative sources of income for the women who perform the cuttings.

Azango said it's likely that many procedures have just gone underground in the wake of the government's announcement. The idea that a girl must undergo the procedure to become a woman is too deeply held in her country to quickly go away, she said.