Press in Peril: A Liberian reporter fights to write truth about female genital mutilation


Liberian journalist Mae Azango stands outside the offices of Front Page Africa in Monrovia, Liberia.


Ethan Baron

MONROVIA, Liberia — I never thought covering women's issues would become dangerous. That was until I reported on female genital mutilation (FGM) and the activities of my country's secret society for women, Sande, which operates "bush schools" where the cutting is done.

My story was published March 8, 2012, International Women's Day, on the front page of the paper where I work. The first threats came to my editor on the day the article appeared. I was outside Monrovia working in a rural area. She called me and said, "Mae, you have to leave right away because I have received numerous phone calls threatening to drag you to the Sande bush and have you cut."

I went home that day. When I walked in, a tenant who rents from me said, "So, you wrote this story exposing us. You shouldn't have done it. You had no business to write the story. If you go to any rural area you will never return to Monrovia alive."

I packed a few things and ran away that night. I would sleep in a place two days and then look for another location. I lived in fear.

For the next six days, people were threatening me through my editor and my mobile phone after getting my number from people who knew me. They said if they cut me, it would keep my mouth shut. The police called me and promised to investigate, but even now they haven't come up with any conclusion from the investigation.

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About a week after the article came out, three zoes, traditional Sande female chiefs, went to both my offices looking for me. The next day, my daughter’s nanny called me and said three unknown women came to my house asking where I was and where my nine-year-old daughter was. The nanny passed through the back door with my child to the neighbor's house where they stayed the night. The next day I told her to send my daughter to a distant relative, outside Monrovia.

After my situation was publicized internationally, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, and the Columbia School of Journalism Society of Professional Journalists called on Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the Liberian National Police to take immediate action to protect me and my children from threats and harassment.

Meanwhile, there were debates on every street corner, on radio stations, in schools, as to whether Sande traditional schools and FGM should be banned. Attention was turned from me and onto the government. The gender minister announced that all Sande activities should be suspended indefinitely. I came out of hiding on April 2.

My daughter is still not with me. I fear for her. I believe these people will strike. They will let everybody forget and then they will strike.

I addressed this issue because I was angry. Small children were being taken into the Sande bush, and that trauma stays with victims through their adulthoods. That's why many Liberian women who went through that are bitter. The trauma leaves its mark.

As I write this, Sande activities continue, even after the gender minister's pronouncement. The Ministry of Internal Affairs says it has closed some Sande bush schools, but right here in Monrovia, Sande activities, including FGM, are still happening.

Mae Azango, 40, is a staff reporter at the Liberian newspaper Front Page Africa. For her work covering FGM in Liberia, she is to receive International Press Freedom Awards from the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City on November 20, and from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression in Toronto on December 5.

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