Liberian journalist speaks about genital mutilation

By Hallie Zolkower-Kutz

Approximately two out of every three women in Liberia are subjected to genital mutilation, according to Mae Azango, a Liberian journalist who has written extensively about the issue.

Azango spoke at a Nov. 29 event hosted by DePaul University Law School, where she discussed female genital mutilation, or cutting, as both a cultural rite of passage and a violation of human rights laws, especially in light of the United Nations’ recent resolution that calls for a ban on

the practice.

Azango has written several articles for the newspaper Front Page Africa condemning female genital mutilation as an unsafe medical practice. Her outspokenness prompted so much backlash that she was forced to go into hiding.

“No one wanted me talking about a subject that was so taboo,” Azango said. “People told me it was not my place.”

According to Azango, 10 of 16  Liberian tribes commonly practice female genital cutting, which can range from complete removal of the clitoris to small cuts in the genital area. She said she has seen its consequences firsthand.

“I have talked to girls who were only 7 years old when they were cut, and they were traumatized,” she said. “They can experience severe mental health problems from the procedure later in life.”

Wilfredo Cruz, an associate professor in the Humanities, History & Social Sciences Department at Columbia, said he views female genital mutilation as a means of labeling women as subservient in a traditionally patriarchal society.

“What it does is make women seem like objects,” Cruz said. “It takes away their ability to feel sexual pleasure and allows men to exercise control over them.”

Azango said the practice is difficult to stop because it is so ingrained in African culture.

“People [in Africa] think that uncircumcised women are unclean,” Azango said. “For many, cutting is necessary if a woman wants a husband or to be accepted by the community. If a girl does not participate, she is ostracized.”

In order to stop the practice, Azango said there needs to be more focus on reaching out to and educating young women about genital cutting. She said she believes the practice has no place in modern society and should be eradicated immediately.

However, Maryiam Hussain, a volunteer attorney who attended the event, said she believes cutting cannot realistically be instantly eliminated from African culture.

“I don’t think you can go from people believing this for generations to saying they can’t do this anymore,” Hussain said. “That doesn’t seem like a logical step. A logical step is working towards maternal health, birthing practices that are safe and moving to safety and cultural practices and then eradication.”

Hussain said she thinks aiming to immediately eliminate the practice comes from viewing the issue from a Western perspective.

“There’s a lot of gray area that we do not touch upon,” Hussain said. “I think there’s a huge spectrum of genital mutilation, and there can’t be one solution.”

Azango said she appreciates having the opportunity to speak with outsiders to educate them about the concerns surrounding female genital mutilation.

“It is important that we all know about this practice,” she said. “We must spread awareness of this issue.”