Liberia bans female genital cutting in a triumph for local journalism

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf attends a press conference in Monrovia, Liberia. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf left office in January with a tremendous, if overdue, parting gift for the girls of Liberia. During her final hours in office, Africa’s first woman elected head of state signed an executive order abolishing female genital cutting, an ancient practice that is endured by more than half of Liberia’s girls.

The fight is not quite over. Lawmakers have a year to enshrine the ban into law, and it may be many years before the law is properly enforced. But it is a momentous step that seemed unthinkable just six years ago, when an explosive newspaper article propelled the issue onto the national agenda.

Back then, in 2012, female genital cutting was a taboo subject in Liberia. Though women’s activists had done heroic work to kill the practice, Liberia’s political leaders, including President Sirleaf, avoided the topic. They feared enraging the powerful traditional societies that dominate politics in 10 of Liberia’s 16 tribes. The women’s secret society known as Sande—an ancient organization with its own traditions and religious beliefs, which predates Islam and Christianity—claims that cutting a girl’s genitals is essential for her passage to adulthood. The cutting takes place at the end of a six-month training called a “Bush school,” after which a girl is said to be ready for marriage (this practice generally takes place between ages 13 and 16, but girls as young as 3 have been initiated and cut). So powerful is the Sande’s electoral power that it is widely believed the president herself was initiated (without FGC) in order to win votes in the 2011 election.

More ominously, it is the policy of the Sande and its male counterpart, the Poro, to kill anyone who speaks publicly about their rituals. Condemning FGC could mean more than just political suicide for Liberia’s leaders. The same rule dictated media coverage. A silent war was ravaging Liberia’s girls with barely a mention, as it had done for centuries. While one after another of Liberia’s neighbors banned the practice, the only state in West Africa headed by a woman dragged its feet.

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That silence was blown up in spectacular fashion on International Women’s Day in 2012, when Mae, one of Liberia’s most well known reporters published a story with New Narratives, the NGO Prue runs to support Liberian journalists, on A1 of Front Page Africa newspaper. Our piece told the story of a woman named “Ma Sabah,” who described her terror at the age of 13 when she was held down by five women and cut with a rusty blade. She was one of 25 girls to be cut that day. The youngest was only 3. Ma Sabah had endured lifelong health problems as a result, as well as a broken marriage. A Liberian doctor spoke to us about possible effects of cutting, such as infections, hemorrhages, and long-term impacts such as painful periods, difficulty in childbirth. Some have died.

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We took care with our story to not judge parents. We know the majority of parents who submit their daughters to FGC believe they are doing the best for them. We sought simply to convey the truth about the practice and encourage a broader debate. (We intentionally use the term “cutting” instead of “mutilation.” Though the act of cutting girls as young as 3 is abhorrent, the work of Anthony Kwame Appiah and others has shown that “mutilation” is a judgmental term that causes proponents to become defensive and resistant to information about FGC’s harm.)

By choosing our story for the cover on International Women’s Day, Rodney Sieh, Front Page Africa’s courageous publisher, was making a clear statement: Electing Africa’s first female president is not enough. Liberia must address the plague of rape, teen pregnancy, maternal death, violence, and discrimination that ravages the nation’s women. Front Page was playing the role good, independent media is supposed to play in a democracy, but which it rarely does in Africa due to corruption and the absence of effective business support from international donors.

When the paper hit newsstands, the backlash began. Traditional leaders called our offices and turned up at Mae’s house threatening to kill her and circumcise her 9-year-old daughter. The pair went into hiding. We begged the police to intervene, and begged every political leader who had been privately supportive of our story to publicly denounce threats to a journalist. At first, none did.

The debate that ensued shook the nation. On talk shows, in cafés, and on street corners, Liberians argued over Mae’s piece and whether we should have published it. Within a week an international coalition including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International had joined us, pressing the government to protect Mae.

The traditional societies’ sway was strong. Among Liberians with indigenous heritage, mistrust of any ideas that are thought to have come from “the West” runs deep. “Western values” carry a stigma from their association with the hated Americo-Liberian elite—the descendants of formerly enslaved and freeborn Africans from America who colonized this land with US government support in 1821. Mae was accused of “selling out [our] culture to the West.”

The traditional societies have deep political and economic roots binding them to local communities. Our reporting showed that in tribal areas, those not initiated into the Sande are barred from local government of from owning land. If they do own land, it can be taken away. The traditional women who do the cutting, known as zoes, also derive their income from running the Bush schools. They have a deep financial interest in defending the practice.

As the weeks dragged on, Mae and her daughter moved from house to house, afraid to stay too long under one roof. Our New Narratives team kept publishing. Front Page published follow-up pieces by Mae, reporting that when girls are cut they usually drop out of school, undermining the government’s efforts to keep girls in education. One of our radio reporters, Tetee Gebro, did a version for SKY FM.

Sadly for us, President Sirleaf gave a lecture at Columbia University later that year, and when asked about Mae, she accused her of writing the story in order to win asylum in the US. “Tell me how we can have a group to protect people from irresponsible media reporting….Then we can be fair in protecting them,” said Sirleaf.

Finally, at the end of the third week after the story was published, three brave government ministers came forward to publicly condemn FGC—the first Liberian politicians to do so. Then other women leaders came forward, and men. Mae eventually felt safe to come out of hiding. The government announced it had secretly negotiated a deal to suspend Sande activity.

Mae is fond of the saying, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and she proved it to be true. No one thinks FGC ended in Liberia with one article, but what it did do was spark a vibrant national dialogue that boosted the work of anti-FGC campaigners.

In the years since that story, FGC has been a constant fixture in newspapers, on radio talk shows, and in Liberia’s politics. Once taboo, it is now on everyone’s lips, including, to our great joy, the girls themselves. In tribal areas, news of what happens in initiation ceremonies is reaching the girls, and they’re pushing back.

At this year’s International Women’s Day celebration, Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee applauded Mae for advancing the cause of Liberia’s women. “When I started as an activist, you could not say the word ‘FGM’ in Liberia in a negative sense,” Gbowee told a crowded stadium in Monrovia. “Today, you can talk about it. For me, as a feminist and as a fighter, I have to remain optimistic that change is definitely going to happen.”

Women’s activists and politicians, including new Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor, have fought for a ban on FGC to be included in a domestic violence law that has been making its way through Parliament. Finally, at the 2015 Global Women’s Conference, President Sirleaf promised to stop FGM before the end of her presidency. She fulfilled that commitment.

We echo the lament of Korto Williams, a leading women’s activist, in an interview in the wake of Sirleaf’s executive order. “We want to recognize the silent survivors of FGM over the last 12 years and those, who did advocacy on FGM, because just a stroke from the pen before today, could have stopped so many from being circumcised.” Sadly, more girls will be cut before FGC ends in Liberia, but thanks to one newspaper article, that end will come sooner.

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Mae Azango and Prue Clarke are the authors of this story. Mae Azango is a senior reporter with Front Page Africa and New Narratives and author of Voice of the Trumpetess, a memoir of her life during and after Liberia’s civil war. Mae’s piece on FGC appears in African Muckraking—100 Years of Investigative Journalism in Africa, edited by Anya Schiffrin and George Lugalambi. Prue Clarke is founder and executive director of New Narratives and director of International Reporting at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism.