What happened when I met the girls risking their lives to end FGM

Giselle Portenier
Documentary Defying the Cutting Season follows a number of girls standing up for their human rights and fighting against the tradition of FGM - WARNING: Use of this copyright image is subject to the terms of use of BBC Pictures' Digital Picture

Maria walks slowly and with a confidence beyond her young eight years; our camera captures her arrival, a soft large bag full of clothes on her head, wearing a pretty floral sleeveless dress and open-toed shoes with small heels. Maria could be going to a family celebration, carrying gifts for others.

But little Maria has run away from her village in Northern Tanzania’s famous Serengeti district, all by herself, to a Safe House, not knowing if she will ever see her family again. Earlier that morning, her grandmother had informed her that her time to be ‘cut’ had come; she wanted her granddaughter to go through female genital mutilation (FGM,) a thousands-year-old tradition designed to control a girl’s sexuality. And there’s an economic imperative. Cut girls fetch twice the number of cows as a bride price.

Maria had heard the outreach workers at school describe the dangers of FGM;  how in the bush and without anesthesia, her genitalia would be cut with a razor blade by the village cutter. Her clitoris and labia minora would be removed, the wound left to heal without stitches. Each year in Northern Tanzania, thousands of girls endure this ritual during the chillingly named ‘cutting season.’ Girls sometimes die after this harmful rite of passage; survivors often suffer life-long effects, including post-traumatic stress, pain urinating and menstruating and complications in child birth.

So when she heard about her imminent fate, little Maria plucked up her courage,  packed her bag, and walked for two hours to a Safe House she’d heard about in Mugumu. There, Rhobi Samwelly, one of Africa’s most charismatic women, confronts her community to save and protect the girls, more than a thousand so far.

The story of some of the world’s bravest girls who contend with wild animals and angry parents to protect themselves from harm first came to my attention through a story in the Telegraph four years ago; my former BBC colleague Linda Pressly had made a radio documentary about the  Safe House. It was moving, important, pressing. And I knew immediately that I had to make the television documentary to highlight the voices of young girls whose voices had literally not been heard for thousands of years.

Children who are first seduced, then bullied, then threatened, and if that still doesn’t work, physically forced to endure this life-changing torture.  The facts are clear—girls who are informed of what’s about to happen, never agree voluntarily. But for too long, especially in the West, we have been so worried about the sensitivities of the adults, we’ve sacrificed the human rights of the children. And so FGM continues. Each year, three million girls are at risk.   

I wanted to help refocus the conversation on what’s most important—the fundamental human rights of the girls.   It wasn’t an easy documentary to make—FGM is a tough topic, and at first, there were no backers, so I launched an online Indiegogo fund-raising campaign.  

For two months during the ‘cutting season’ of December 2016 and January 2017, I filmed at the Safe House with a local Tanzanian crew by day, and retreated to our 10 pound a night hotel by night to work the internet and raise funds.  At one point I even videos myself dressed up as Wonder Woman to help separate people from their money.

Eventually, we raised 60,000 pounds with donations from 30 countries, enough to complete the filming. Thankfully, the BBC and other European broadcasters then came on board.  The resulting documentary, named Defying the Cutting Season for BBC Storyville, is equally heart-breaking and heart-warming.  And it’s inspiring—it shows young girls risking their lives for a chance to continue with their education and follow their dreams.  Theirs is a tragic choice no child should ever have to make—between themselves, and their families.

Audiences worldwide have called our documentary ‘powerful,’ ‘moving,’ even ‘life-changing.’  That comment first came from a 13-year-old Danish girl, who had the privilege to meet two of the girls at the world premiere of the documentary in Copenhagen. The film has been shown in the House of Commons in the UK and in Australia’s parliament. Sweden is putting it into schools.   

In Tanzania, with the support of the High Commission of Canada, the film has toured villages in an effort to change minds and hearts. The morning after the first such village screening, two young girls, 9-and 10-years old, arrived at Rhobi Samwelly’s Safe House. One had been brought by her own brother. Change in the making.

A few months later, a woman from rural Kenya reached out to me on Twitter. She wanted to save her three daughters from the terrible effects of FGM that she’d endured—but the girls were being bullied at school, and their resolve to resist being cut was weakening. I sent the girls a confidential link to the feature documentary of our film, called In The Name Of Your Daughter, and organised letters from Canadian and Danish children, urging the girls to stay strong.  And it worked.

As for little Maria, she still hasn’t been able to go home, but remains determined to refuse being cut. And it’s her dream to save other girls from FGM.

Defying the Cutting Season is available on BBC iPlayer