Journalists intimidated for reporting on female genital mutilation in Liberia
When we walked into the makeshift office that a friend had set up on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia, it felt like we were entering a war room.
The apartment was big and open, and buzzing with activity. On one side, a group of women sat around a table covered in papers, laptops, half-eaten snacks, and bottles of juice. Across the room, a second group had positioned themselves on a number of sofas. They also had laptops open and headphones plugged in.
It was Wednesday, March 28, and these journalists were working on a story about female circumcision in Liberia (the practice is also known as female genital cutting, or female genital mutilation). They had a scoop and were cooperating to see the news break simultaneously across a number of Liberian outlets on the morning of March 30.
What they already knew was that the Minister of Gender and Development, Julia Duncan-Cassell, had, in an exclusive interview for select members from the group, outlined the clearest position on FGC taken to date by the government of Liberia.
On March 26, Duncan-Cassell had affirmed her office’s commitment to putting an end to female genital cutting in the West African country.
“Government is saying, ‘This needs to stop,’ ” she stated. “I can’t tell you that it stopped completely, but the process is on.”
Duncan-Cassell continued: “There has been a statement put out by the ministry [of internal affairs] asking all of our mothers, our aunts, our sisters, to desist from such practices. Government wants to respect the belief of the people but, at the same time, is telling them not to infringe on the right of someone else.”
It was big news.
FGC is described by UNICEF as a human-rights violation that denies women “their physical and mental integrity, their right to freedom from violence and discrimination, and in the most extreme case, their life”.
It’s estimated that as many as two-thirds of Liberian women have undergone the procedure, which, in its least-invasive form, consists of the removal of the clitoral hood and usually the clitoris itself (type I). In the most-severe cases, consists of the “cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris” (type II)—all according to the World Health Organization.
Yet In Liberia, people don’t talk about FGC. It’s about as off-limits as any topic you can think of.
That’s largely because it’s wrapped up in the Sande Society, a women’s organization that, together with its male counterpart, the Poro, comprise a widespread system of traditional, beliefs, and customs that affect and shape many aspects of Liberian life.
In his seminal work on religion in Liberia, The Mask of Anarchy: The destruction of Liberia and the religious dimensions of an African civil war, author Stephen Ellis describes the Sande and Paro as “corporations, controlled in each town by local councils of elders whose identity and whose rituals may not be divulged to outsiders”.
FGC is at the core of the Sande tradition. Part of the society’s “bush” schools, it’s a ritualistic initiation that’s thought to make girls strong and prevent them from becoming promiscuous.
When Liberian journalist Mae Azango's story on the Sande and FGC was published in Front Page Africa on March 8—on International Women’s Day—the backlash was swift. Threats came in several forms and, three weeks later, Azango remains in hiding, moving from one location to the next every couple of days.
International organizations like Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists issued letters of protest. But little has changed on the ground in Liberia.
On March 26, another Liberian reporter, Tetee Gebro, was threatened for her mere relationship with Azango while working a story on Capitol Hill.
“Maybe we kill you,” she recounted a group of men saying to her. “Then you’ll stop talking about our practice.”
And so this group of journalists—all female, except for myself, and all Liberian, save for myself and one other (a media trainer from a program called New Narratives)—was taking precautions in producing a second round of stories on FGC in Liberia.
As mentioned, we were working out of an apartment instead of our respective offices. Specifics related to some of our homes and even our daily whereabouts had become relatively guarded. And, most importantly, several of the reporters who worked on the stories on FGC that appeared in Friday’s papers and radio reports would have their names withheld from publication.
Now it’s the early morning hours of Saturday, March 30, and this second round of media attention on female genital cutting is slowly building to the point of a national debate.
Front Page Africa carried the majority of our articles, and will likely face the greatest backlash from those Liberians who don’t consider such topics appropriate for public discussion. Sky FM is another. And over the weekend, the United Nations Mission in Liberia's radio station, LUX FM, and other local media are sure to pick up the story.
Looking back at the whole experience, a quote from Gebro, a journalist with SKY and one of the youngest of the group, came to mind.
“We have a responsibility to speak about this [female genital cutting] if we know that it is harmful to society,” she said in a quick interview held outside the minister of gender’s office. “If a doctor tells us that it is harmful, we have to speak about it, because we are journalists.”