Monrovia: Liberian journalist says she has been forced into hiding after lifting the lid on initiation rituals, including genital mutilation, by a secretive women's society.
Mae Azango, a reporter with Liberian daily Front Page Africa, published a story on March 8 in which a woman recounted how when she was a child she was held down and had part of her genitalia sliced off by members of the Sande Society.
The society is an initiation school where women and girls are sent to be circumcised and groomed to be prepared for marriage, as culture and tradition demand in the west African state, Azango wrote.
Azango's story was illustrated with pictures of initiated teenage girls emerging from the bush.
"A few days after I published the story, I received calls, anonymous calls, and women telling me that I have exposed their secret and I am going to pay the price," Azango told AFP in an interview from a secret location. "I was only doing my job, now I am in trouble."
Azango said the punishment for exposing the secrets of the women's initiation society was to be forced to undergo the ritual "whether you like it or not". "They have been hunting for me for weeks now. They have gone to my working area, they have been going to my house, and the worst of all is that they have attempted getting my daughter to have her initiated by force," she said.
International media organisations and NGOs have called on government to step in, a difficult task for the regime as courts have no say in the matter. "The court cannot do anything in this case. It is part of the customary law so it is beyond the control of the judiciary," said Liberian lawyer Emmanuel Capeheart. "It is the law of the traditional people. Once you have violated it they can deal with you and the law cannot help you. If these women get Mae, they can carry her to the bush and she will stay there the longest, no one can go there to help."
The powerful secret societies, called Poro for men and Sande for women, are spread throughout west Africa. "Poro and Sande are responsible for supervising and regulating the sexual, social, and political conduct of all members of the wider society," according to the book Anthropology: What Does It Mean To Be Human by Robert Lavenda and Emily Schultz.
In a chapter on west African secret societies they say top members "impersonate important supernatural figures by donning masks and performing in public".
Girls taking part are bound to secrecy about what takes place during the initiation, making speaking about the societies extremely difficult. The woman in Azango's article, now aged 47, was forced to undergo initiation at 13 because of a crime committed by her mother in 1976.
Azango reported that 10 of Liberia's 16 tribes practice female circumcision. "In Liberia, the female genital mutilation (FGM) is rampant and at the same time an open secret," said sociologist Emmanuel Ralph.
"Almost all the tribes in Liberia are involved in this practice. I know that this could be somehow strange to the western world but this is part of the African tradition. The government is afraid of touching the interest of traditionalists."
Information Minister Lewis Brown told AFP that the government had launched an investigation. "The government's attention has been seriously drawn to the report of threat against Miss Mae Azango... the director of police has been instructed to protect the journalist who is daily in contact with the police."
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is facing pressure on taboo issues such as female genital mutilation and homosexuality - especially after winning the Nobel Peace Prize last year. "We find it troubling that Liberia, boasting Africa's first female head, remains muted on the issue engulfed in controversy," Azango's newspaper Front Page Africa said in an editorial.
"We hope that the debate emerging out of reporter Azango's report will push government and society as a whole to educate the uninformed public about the dangers and risks involved."
The World Health Organisation estimates that some 92 million girls aged 10 and above in Africa have undergone FGM, which can involve partial or total removal of the genitalia for various cultural, religious and social reasons.