Liberian Journalist Threatened after Reporting on Female Genital Mutilation
Liberian journalist Mae Azango has gone into hiding after she received death threats following the publication of her article, “Growing Pains: Sande Tradition of Genital Cutting Threatens Liberian Women’s Health,” which profiles female circumcision, or cutting, a custom still practiced and fiercely defended by 10 of the country’s 16 tribes.
After the article appeared in the daily paper FrontPage Africa on International Women’s Day (March 8), and the controversial issue was widely discussed on Liberian radio programs, both FrontPage Africa and Azango received threatening phone calls. “They left messages and told people to tell me that they will catch me and cut me [to] make me shut up. I have not been sleeping in my house,” Azango said to Committee to Protect Journalists on March 9.
To write “Growing Pains” Azango interviewed doctors, midwives, and anonymous women who were circumcised by the Sande Society. In the piece Azango reported that Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) affects over two-thirds of the female population in Liberia, and that women who are cut are forbidden to speak of it, under penalty of death.
FGM, also known as female circumcision, is practiced in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, ostensibly for ensuring women’s marriageability, virginity, and sexual fidelity. Once a deeply-rooted tradition, it has since been recognized for its many health risks. FGM often occurs in unsanitary conditions, and the risks include trauma, bleeding, infection, tetanus, HIV, future problems in giving birth, and possibly death.
International organizations, including the Association for Crisis Assistance and Development Cooperation, Human Rights Watch, and UNICEF have called for an end to the practice. According to Azango, “Twenty-one African countries including Senegal and Somalia have banned or partially banned cutting. Only Liberia and five other countries are still holding on to this cultural heritage that has been passed down from generation to generation.”
In the past year some other journalists and editors reporting on FGM have received training to ensure careful and objective reporting on the subject in countries where the custom is observed and defended with hostility. Nevertheless, for investigating or writing about FGM journalists may face severe backlash, including threats of violence, harassment, attacks, and trumped-up charges. In February 2009 four female journalists reporting on the issue were beaten and held hostage for two days in Sierra Leone by the Bondo Society, another group that still practices FGM.
Of the threats against her, Azango said, “There are some things, they say, that women are not supposed to expose. They are angry because I wrote about FGM.”
Mae Azango is a journalist specializing in human rights and investigative journalism in Liberia. She has reported on societal issues of women and children as well as politics and crime. Last year Azango was awarded a grant to report on reproductive issues in Africa by the Pulitzer Center. She has also contributed to the African independent media organization New Narratives, the Global Post, and the Christian Science Monitor. As part of the international response to her case, Committee to Protect Journalists wrote a letter to Liberian President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, urging her to intervene in the case and ensure Azango’s safety.
On March 16 police informed Azango that investigation into the threats was underway and witnesses were being contacted. Azango hopes that in time she will be able to return home and, when the time is right, write a follow-up to the controversial story.