Tanzanian safe house helps courageous girls escape female genital mutilation

Many young girls face female genital mutilation in Tanzania. But now a safe haven, run by a local woman, serves as a refuge to help these girls escape the painful and potentially deadly tradition.
Early one morning Neema, 12, left for school in her uniform pretending she was heading to classes; instead she ran away to Rhobi Samwelly's safe house in Tanzania. (Courtesy of Giselle Portenier)
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Every 11 seconds, somewhere in the world a girl suffers female genital mutilation (FGM).

From Africa, the Middle East, Asia and beyond, the cultural tradition of female genital mutilation is practiced as a rite of passage for girls to become women.

In many villages of Tanzania, female genital mutilation, known there as 'cutting', goes back generations.

Rhobi Samwelly was cut as a child and almost died. She wants girls to escape the painful and potentially deadly tradition and has created a house where girls can feel safe.

"In this district, I can say in every seasonal cutting almost 50 girls are dying," Samwelly says in the Giselle Portenier's documentary In the Name of Your Daughter.

Last December, more than 200 girls arrived at Samwelly's sanctuary from all over Tanzania; some as young as eight years old fled their homes to avoid cutting.

Samwelly — known to the girls as "Mamma Rhobi" — provides more than just housing and food, she offers the young girls lessons in sewing, cooking, reading and math.

"The essential role of the safe house is to provide a safe haven during the cutting season which lasts most of December. But the idea then is to reunite the children with their parents,"  Portenier tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

The safe house staff return to the villages where the girls come from and negotiate with the parents for their safe return. 
Leticia and her sister Rehema holding up their successful school exam results. (Courtesy of Giselle Portenier)

"We tried to convince our father not to have us cut... but he couldn't hear our voices. We told our father that we want to continue studying.  My father refused," Leticia, 10, says in the documentary.

Leticia arrived at the safe haven two years ago with her 12-year old sister Rehema.

In their case, Portenier says the grandmother is the village cutter so "it's probably unlikely that those girls would get away without being cut when they went back home because the honour of the grandmother and family is also at stake."

Children know about the safe house because of Samwelly's outreach program, where she goes to the villages and schools to talk about FGM and tells the girls that they don't have to go through the harmful ritual. 

Twelve-year-old Neema says that she initially accepted FGM when her father told her it was "a good thing," but changed her mind when she discovered the harm it does.

"That's what they care about. Even if you face problems in your marriage they won't help you because they have been given cows as dowries and you can't even go back home," she says in the documentary.

When Portenier met Neema, she was wearing a t-shirt that said 'Justin', and took the opportunity to ask if she had a message for prime minister Justin Trudeau.

"She looked at me and took about eight to 10 seconds and then she said, 'yes I do.'

"My message for Justin is that he should be a courageous leader and we should cooperate to end FGM."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese.