As secret societies go, Liberia's Sande society has a most painful and dangerous initiation ritual: female genital mutilation (FGM).
That practice was thrust into the public eye in March 2012 when Mae Azango, a journalist for the West African nation's Front Page Africa, published a groundbreaking exposé about the women's group. The article described the severe bleeding that often accompanies the procedure and the risk of infection to girls as young as 4. One of the girls, a 13-year-old, "told me about the traumatic experience," says Azango. "Then I talked to doctors who said the woman’s case was bad. The Sande used didn’t use sterilized instruments, they used two knives."
The article also described the various complications that often accompany the procedure, including severe pain and excessive tearing and bleeding, especially during childbirth. FGM, which reportedly affects more than half of Liberian girls, is well known but not openly discussed. The practice often includes the excision of the clitoris and parts of the labia “I reported the story out in the open," says Azango, in an interview with Global Journalist. "I wanted it to be a discussion because that was taboo... [a]taboo that nobody dared to talk about.”
The response to Azango's article was swift: a series of death threats from traditional spiritual leaders. "They decided to call my office, they decided to call my home," says Azango. "They even went so far [as] to go to my two offices to look for me."
Her family also became a target shortly after she went into hiding. "Two days after they went for my daughter," says Azango. "She was 9-years-old by then. She was rescued by the nanny who ran through the back door to a neighbor's house [to get help]."
Azango went into hiding for about a month, during which time she moved to different locations. "I was like a bat, going from tree to tree, going to a new destination to sleep," she says. "You are living in a world of isolation. Nobody knows you. You don't talk to people. Living in isolation, it's like your whole world has crumbled down."
Azango says she initially received no protection from the Liberian government. However she did garner an outpouring of international support from groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Columbia Journalism School. "A lot of organizations wrote, wrote, wrote," she says.
She later came out of hiding and returned to reporting after the government succumbed to international pressure in late March of 2012 and suspended all activities of the Sande, including the practice of FGM. Today she continues her work for Front Page Africa and is a fellow with New Narratives, a U.S.-based nonprofit.
Yet despite the government's move and the publicity surrounding her death threats, FGM hasn't been eliminated in Liberia. Nor has it been halted by the Ebola outbreak, as may have occurred in nearby Sierra Leone. Azango says she recently saw women wearing the traditional outfit donned by those who have been newly circumcised.
"I said to myself 'Wow, with Ebola, they are still doing it,'" she says. "The reason why the Ebola [won't] just be eradicated overnight is because traditional people hold onto their culture."