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.
"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.
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
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'
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
"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."
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
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."
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.
mutilation is customary in her father's tribe, but not in her mother's. Among
the 16 tribes in
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
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.