As the number of deaths of young girls subjected to the traditional African practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) increases, the population of village practitioners grows even bigger. One of Liberia’s outspoken opponents of the practice is Angela Peabody.
Peabody is a Liberian American novelist and magazine publisher who challenges her U.S. audiences by writing and speaking without ambiguity about the African cultural tradition of removing the clitoris and sometimes the labia from a young girl’s genitals.
Her target audience is Americans. “They think that it is an obsolete thing,” Peabody said in a VOA interview. “… but as you and I speak at this very moment, there are 8,000 girls in Africa that are being cut. Their genitals are being cut and mutilated.
Once they get over the initial shock that FGM is still practiced in many African countries, “they are just appalled at the fact that it is being done to little girls, to anyone for that matter.”
They then ask Peabody, ‘What can we do?’
“They want to help," she says. "They want to see it stop.”
Stop the cutting tradition
Peabody says, “My organization and I have made it our passion to make sure to do something about that, to raise awareness in the United States and around the world so that we can help end it.” Her organization is an offshoot of a magazine she has published for eight years and a book she recently published. She tells me that the two are however being kept separate since the organization is non-profit, unlike the magazine which is for profit.
Liberia’s patriarchal culture is exacerbated by traditional practices such as FGM, Peabody says, as a means of preserving “what is called a tradition handed down by the ancestors.” She dares to tread the dangerous path of ending a practice deeply rooted in the traditions of Liberia and many other African cultures.
Peabody’s goal is to chronicle what African women and girls experience, the impact of the medically dangerous practice and explain the consequences women must endure for the rest of their lives. She wants to shine a bright light on a violent practice that threatens the futures of thousands of women in Africa.
Following years of reading about FGM across Africa and other parts of the world, Peabody decided to publish a magazine, Global Woman Magazine, in 2006. The maiden issue was devoted to an interview with Somali activist Waris Arie who opened Peabody’s eyes to the long-term consequences of the practice of genital cutting. Peabody learned from that meeting that going through FGM for the African woman was like “carrying an unnecessary burden” that for some leads to death.
Starting a women’s magazine with a narrow focus
The purpose of the magazine was to bring together women from diverse backgrounds to inspire and share their stories. The magazine turned out to be the major vehicle for a crusade against the continuing and abusive practice of FGM.
She believes that taking the fight against FGM to a new level with her book published in the United States, she will garner the much-needed support in the United States to curb the practice at home.
Her latest endeavor to highlight the FGM terror is a book called “When the Games Froze”, a fictionalized narrative of the life of Nana Nkuku, a Ghanaian émigré to the United States to go to school. Her problem is how to hide her secret; that she won’t date men because she was cut when she was five.
A student of West Africa’s cutters
Peabody has studied the practice in West Africa where FGM is prevalent.
Adopting a model she found in Egypt, Senegal and Cameroon, Peabody wants to sit and talk with the women who practice FGM and the men who use it for political gains. She wants to build institutions to provide alternative livelihoods for the practitioners and better education for victims of FGM.
She remembers a female judge in Cameroon who invited those who practice cutting in their area to replace their blades with something else to do. “Because, keep in mind, these women who perform the practice, that’s all they know how to do to make a living. They get paid by the parents to perform the practice on the daughters and we don’t want to take bread out of their mouths.
“You can teach them how to do other things so that they can make a living in other ways than just cutting little girls.”
The lessons Peabody learned in Liberia
For over a decade, the publisher has interviewed victims of FGM in Liberia and abroad in order to better tell the challenges and tragedies of the FGM story.
But events from her Liberian past have forced her to reflect on the violent nature of life for African women. Her younger sister, Rose, was beaten to death by her husband.
Her focus on FGM came later, as she remembered a happy 10-year-old friend who – as the saying goes in Liberia – “went to the bush.”
Angela discovered the problem of FGM at an early age but did not fully understand how it could affect the lives of women and girls; therefore she couldn’t do anything about it.
She tells the story of her 10-year-old peer and playmate in the suburban town of Marshall, who suddenly disappeared for over a year without any news of her whereabouts. When she appears, her physique changes, she becomes less engaging for her young age and secretive in every move. What had happened to her, little Angela wondered?
It was not until after several months of horning her investigative whims that she realized that her best friend had been taken “to the bush”, a common inference of the practice in Liberia. At that tender age, her friend had lost her innocence, her happy-go-lucky lifestyle typical of children and a countenance shrouded in fear.
Discovery of a women’s mission
FGM was a forbidden subject in Liberia when Peabody was growing up and it was one topic she could not imagine would become the focus of her adult life. Her father was a lawyer, farmer and legislator while her mother served as the first female mayor of Marshall-west of the Political capital Monrovia, Liberia in the late 40’s.
Angela takes after her mother’s humanitarian characteristics, and believes that sharing people’s problems makes solving it even easier. But she had no political affiliations while growing up in Liberia and didn’t seem eager to run for public office there. She fled the country with her family during the 1980 coup. She was 28. She found shelter in the United States during Liberia’s civil upheaval in the early 90’s. She returned briefly to Liberia as a mother of two boys to bury her mother in 1984.
As a Christian, Peabody says God created a woman in perfection and therefore did not require anyone removing her genitals as a means of “preparing her for a man.” So, she keeps asking others the same question: Why alter that which God has created?
Taking the message back to Liberia
“Being a woman myself and then later becoming a mother, I realized that this is wrong. There is no need to do it. It is not needed. I understand if they have to circumcise the boys; I had my boys circumcised -- both of them, but not a woman, a woman doesn’t have to be circumcised. There is no need for it.”
The conviction was reinforced when Peabody met women who told stories about how they were circumcised and had to run away from their villages to avoid arranged marriages to men three times their age.
“I have not had the opportunity to go and speak in person before audiences in Africa, unfortunately. But I do intend to do that in the future … and I know that it’s going to be the most difficult thing to do in the whole campaign.”
Peabody says she is personally committed to being remembered as the woman who surmounted the odds to join the fight to save the genitals of little girls.
Eva Flomo is a VOA intern and a Hubert Humphrey Fulbright Fellow and radio producer for the UN Mission to Liberia.