Daring to write about female genital mutilation: Mae Azango

Photo: Glenna Gordon/New Narratives
Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Mae Azango is one of CJFE's two 2012 International press Freedom Award recipients. She will be honoured at the CJFE Gala: A Night to Honour Courageous Reporting, on December 5, 2012.

by Cara Smusiak

It was a story shrouded in secrecy and cultural tradition, but Liberian journalist Mae Azango was determined to tell it. In a long-held custom, Liberian girls, as young as three, are groomed for marriage by the Sande, a secret society. As part of the process, girls are subjected to female genital cutting (also known as female genital mutilation or female circumcision). There’s no anesthetic, blades are often dull and unsterile, and only herbs are applied to the wound. Girls may bleed heavily or go into shock, resulting in hospitalization or death, and many face severe bleeding later in life when they give birth. The World Health Organization estimates nearly 60 per cent of girls and women in Liberia have been subjected to female genital mutilation.

Unsettled by the harm done to girls (and with her nine-year-old daughter weighing heavily on her mind), Azango set out to break the silence surrounding the Sande’s practices. Her feature, “Growing Pains,” appeared in FrontPage Africa on March 8, 2012—International Women’s Day. But it came at a cost. “It was the suffering of my Liberian sisters that motivated me...to risk the anger of the Sande and report on the health costs of female genital cutting,” Azango wrote later that month in FrontPage Africa. “For that, I have paid a heavy price. I now live in hiding. My family fears for their lives. But I believe the need to talk about this subject and find a better way to marry our traditions with the welfare of all Liberians makes my decision to report on this right.”

This was not the first time Azango risked backlash. She has written about child rape, teen pregnancy, police brutality and other taboo subjects. She continually rocks the boat, yet journalism wasn’t her first career choice—Azango had wanted to be a hotel manager. Her goals changed following Liberia’s 15-year civil war. Her father, an associate justice in Liberia’s Supreme Court, was dragged from the family home by rebels and beaten. He later died from his injuries.

Two years later, Azango, then 18, gave birth to her first child and barely survived due to the dangerous practices of the superstitious midwife. When the war ended in 2005, there was no tourism industry to speak of, so Azango enrolled in a journalism course and found her calling in exposing the adversity faced by the voiceless—women, children, slum- dwellers, rape victims and others.

Her work has had a deep impact. After the threats against Azango and FrontPage Africa garnered international attention, the Liberian government promised to end female genital cutting. Azango came out of hiding, and though she still faces aggression and backlash, her commitment to telling the stories of Liberia’s voiceless is unwavering. For her courageous reporting, Azango is one of two winners of the