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Report: Liberia

Liberian journalist urges women to speak out on excision

Glenna Gordon

Liberian journalist Mae Azango has been forced into hiding after publishing an article in the Liberian daily Front Page Africa on the practice of female genital cutting or excision in the country. Azango, a New Narratives fellow talks to RFI's Laura-Angela Bagnetto about her experience.

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Q: Mae, this has affected you personally. Can you tell us about your story?

MA: My story was about female genital cutting. Yes, I did write that story on the eighth of this month. It only talked about the medical implications women go about. Usually when women are cut, according to the doctor, it has a lot of medical implications. That’s what I was trying to say. And I talked to a victim who explained about her ordeal when she was about 13 years old.

Q: You are now in hiding. We are not saying where you are because people have made threats on your life.

MA: Oh yes. When the story came out, I was in an area called Todi. And then my editor called me and she told me that if you are there you have to leave right away because I am getting a lot of threats that people say they will catch you and they will carry you to the Sande bush and they will have you cut. So you have to leave there. Because it was in Todee, I went and took pictures of these girls coming from the Sande bush. The Sande bush is where these girls go. It’s called a bush school and they teach them other things. And after that their graduation. Before that, they have to cut them.

I left and came to Monrovia. People were threatening me, even my office. I went there and somebody left a message for me. They called my editor and said, since we put our mouth in their business, we’d pay for it - a series of threats! I even had a threat from a tenant in my own house. They threatened that if I do go away in Bong County, I wouldn’t return to Monrovia alive. I didn’t sleep at home. And since then, I’ve just been everywhere. I’ve been everywhere.

Q: Why did you decide to write about this?

MA:In fact, it’s not the first story. I did a story of women being rejected by their husbands. Women who were cut. I was able to talk with three women who explained their painful ordeal. They were married happily, some of them. Some of them were forced into the Sande bush and their husbands left them. And some of them were married. Or when they were tired of living with them they came to urban areas and started having relationships with other women. They left them! So these women were speaking out. But that story did not have a lot of implications like this one. I don’t know what is so different about this one. This Female Genital Cutting, its been in the open for a long time. So I don’t know why they are taking it out of context because everybody's talking about it. In Senegal, I mean, all over Africa, and in the European world. Everywhere. Even in Liberia, but it’s a taboo here. It’s a taboo. Because you are not supposed to talk about this here. No. They are angry because I am a female journalist and I’m not supposed to be disclosing their secret as a woman. But disclosing this secret is not so much of a secret because it has a lot of implications. People are dying. Why should they hide it? It is not the way to behave.

Q: In your article, you said it is a widespread practice. You said that two out of three girls in some parts of Liberia have been subject to female cutting. So why is it taboo if it is so common?

MA:Because these women and girls that are cut. They usually take an oath of allegiance not to talk. Everything that is done in the Sande, they are not supposed to talk about it. And when you take that oath you are not supposed to talk. When you talk, you are going to die. So they have it in the back of their minds. Not many persons speak about it. Even up to now people don’t want to speak about it. You know the amount of women I confronted who didn’t want to talk to me? Only a lady [spoke to me]. And the lady that talked with me had to hide. We had to hide in a little room for her to talk. Even as she was talking to me in a squeezed little room, she was still afraid, looking around, that somebody might see her.

Q: The Liberian Observer wrote an editorial called “Leave Mae Azango Alone.” And they pointed out that a male journalist, Ismael Menchor, a correspondent in Nimba County, reported on the death of a 17-year-old after she had been cut. But he had received no death threats. Do you think that you are receiving death threats because you are a woman?

MA:Yes, I want to believe it strongly because I am a woman. And as a woman I am supposed to know my place in the society in Liberia. Women are not supposed to talk certain things, OK? Women need to know their place in our society. It has been like that for time immemorial. So it is not my place to go and talk there. No, it is not. So that is why I am getting all these threats. I’m not supposed to talk about it as a woman and I am discussing a secret, and as a woman I am supposed to keep this secret.

Q: Have you had any support from faith-based groups, like priests, or imams, or Protestant preachers?

MA:No. No. No. Not anybody from the imam or whoever has ever come…even women’s groups have not even spoken about this. A lot of women are affected. So how can they talk about it? I told you this is a taboo. I parked by my office and then they said traditional women went to look for me. Why they looking for me? They went to my offices to look for me. What have I done wrong? Before that, the second night more women went around my house area, looking. Looking, asking for me, asking for her [my] daughter. I had to take my daughter out of there and ship her to a new destination. Because I don’t know how far it’s going, I don’t know how far they’re taking it. I don’t know.

Q: If [Liberian President] Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spoke out about this before, why do you think she is not speaking out on your behalf?

MA:I don’t know. But you can’t blame her because a lot of women you find in high-up positions in the government, they are all part of this. And I don’t think she wants to speak on it to make them feel bad, she’s from a background that practices that too. Her father is from that. She’s from Bomi country. Bomi county is in the number that practice FGC. You do it. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf takes her time to approach issues.

Q: With your background, do the people where you come from, do they practice female genital cutting?

MA:The funny part about it, my father is from the north. And in the north, which is Lofa County, oh! It’s very high. It is very high. It is highly practiced there because that’s the norm of today. And my mother comes from the southeastern part, Maryland County. Which of course, south eastern people don’t take part in it, OK? And my mother did not agree for her girl children to go to the bush. For my father insisted. He did want us to go there. But my mother said, not in my sight! If my mother had not stood that strong, I would have been affected. Therefore, I feel sorry for those people who were forced into the Sande and cut. They are feeling bad now because they are troubled. So, if nobody to talk for them, at least I’m able to talk for them. I know the pain they go through. They are going through pain but people don’t know. These are the implications I’m talking about. You grab a six, seven-year-old child. You cut her. That pain will remain in her mind. Furthermore it has a traumatic effect on the child. That child will live or that child will die. Because four or five women hold her, a child, and a lady come and cut that child. That will remain in that child’s head til she gets big. Probably she will withdraw in herself. That’s why the people say post traumatic stress disorder. Why do you think it comes about? Women really suffer for it! Because most of the women are still traumatized by this, from this practice. Our people don’t know it.

Q: What would you say to those who have threatened to kill you or maim you? What would you like to say to them?

MA: What do I have to tell them? I just have to tell them, the truth hurts. But it should be said. It should be spoken about. I mean, Abdoulaye Wade, when I sent to Senegal, was very, very proud to announce that he had banished it from his country. It is no longer practiced in Senegal. If other African countries are doing it, why is Liberia so different? People coming to support me, oh! But they won’t. They feel like I have committed a big sin. It’s time we speak against this thing. There are some traditional practices that are not good. If you feel it’s good, why is it so secret? Because if it was that secret it is not harmful and it is not supposed to be secret. But it’s a secret that they are trying to hold. It’s an oath they took. So they can’t talk.

Q: Is there anything our listeners in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the rest of Africa should know about your story?

MA: Yes, I want women to stand up. I want women to stand up. If we women don’t talk over what affects us, who will listen to us? Men were part of the Poro society [ed: a male secret society] and they are angry because they say it’s not my place to talk, and number two, the men are the ones in society deciding that women be cut. Who are they to decide what women should go through? They are the ones importing this punishment on the women. Because they say when they cut the women they won’t be promiscuous. But then they say if you don’t cut a woman, she will run around. So what gives them that clue? What made them to come up and say that women should be subject to cutting. It was the men’s idea, not the women’s idea, so we women are suffering from what the men want us to do because they feel this is a male dominant society.

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