MONROVIA, Liberia — Phyllis Kimba's house in Monrovia burned down in March, three days after she spoke at the UN in New York against female genital mutilation (FGM) in Liberia. Soon after, Liberian journalist Mae Azango was threatened with death and mutilation and went into hiding after her FGM exposé appeared on the front page of a national newspaper.
International and Liberian proponents of a ban on the clitoral excisions might take hope in the Liberian gender minister's call this spring, in the wake of Azango's story, for suspension of the practice. But in spite of the minister's words and the West African nation's 2007 ratification of the Maputo Protocol requiring legislated bans on FGM, the message delivered on November 13 by Liberia’s Internal Affairs Minister Blamoh Nelson is clear: don't hold your breath.
Across Liberia, girls — and sometimes babies and toddlers, FGM opponents say — are taken into jungle and township "schools" run by a secret society called Sande, with genital mutilation a prerequisite for graduation. In the "Sande bush," girls are pinned down by female priestesses called zoes and have their clitorises cut out with razor blades or knives sans anesthetic — the culmination of girls' traditional education into marriage, motherhood and domestic life.
Proponents and foes agree that FGM is intended to prevent promiscuity and adultery by females.
The World Health Organization reported in 2007 that 58 percent of Liberian women between the ages of 15 and 49 had been genitally mutilated. Ten of Liberia's 16 tribes practice FGM; in a country that is 86 percent Christian and 12 percent Muslim, the practice transcends religion. Internal migration and tribal intermarriage resulting from Liberia's civil wars in the 1990s and early 2000s are believed to have spread FGM throughout the country.
More from GlobalPost: A Liberian reporter fights to write the truth about FGM
While Minister Nelson acknowledged a need to "review certain cultural practices," he suggested that change would be slow.
"There is a major debate [on FGM] taking place in Liberia now. We should allow the debate," Nelson said, adding that the dialog had been ongoing since his birth and he was over 50. "Some debates take longer than others."
Nelson held up slavery and public execution as examples of US cultural practices eventually abolished as norms changed. Then the minister slapped down a card with democracy on one side and politics on the other.
"What good does it do if you pass a law that nobody wants to obey?" he said. "Then the government has to enforce the law against the will and wishes of the people."
Asked if FGM was harmful to girls and women, Nelson demurred. "It's not such a prudent thing for me to make such a moral comment on this matter at this time," he said.
Indeed, the topic is so volatile in this country that international aid organizations working to stop it refuse to speak publicly about their work.
"This is a very sensitive issue, and we need to make sure we are respecting the security and safety of our staff and partners," said the country director of a globally ubiquitous aid group in an email apologizing for his inability to comment.
Liberia's tribal leaders talk in general of the need to harmonize traditional practices with human rights, but they oppose a ban on FGM as strongly as they resent perceived cultural imperialism by the developed world.
"It's important for Liberia that [FGM] should continue because that's our culture," said Momo Kiazolu, chairman of the country's tribal chiefs. "Maybe people say it's harmful and don't know what they're talking about."
Phyllis Kimba, 57, of the house-burned-to-ashes, said she underwent FGM around age four. "I can still remember the pain," Kimba said. "You cannot forget."
During delivery of her two children, scarring from her excision caused severe tissue ruptures, and Kimba subsequently gave up sex, she said.
An anti-FGM activist for almost 20 years, Kimba travels to rural areas giving presentations on the practice's hazards and attempting to divert zoes into alternative livelihoods.
No reliable statistics exist on the numbers of girls and women who die as a result of FGM, because such outcomes aren't often reported to authorities, said Dr. Wilhemina Jallah, a women's health specialist in Monrovia.
"The way the practice is done is not safe," Jallah said. "It is done ... in an unclean environment with unclean instruments with no kind of pain medication to stop the severe pain."
Girls and women who undergo FGM sometimes bleed to death or die of infections, and scarring that causes painful sex and potentially life-threatening birth complications is common, Jallah said.
Liberia, colonized by former American slaves after the Civil War, is a largely English-speaking nation of four million, and receives about $200 million annual US aid.
California-based journalist Ethan Baron is training Liberian reporters at Front Page Africa under a program funded by the British government and delivered by a Canadian NGO funded 30 percent by the Canadian government.