Meet the amazing woman running a safe house for girls fleeing FGM
The Telegraph, Apr., 2, 2015
Also available on the Telegraph website
Rhobi Samwelly is the founder of a safe house in Mugumun for girls fleeing FGM
‘Cutting season’ in Tanzania is a time where hundreds of young girls are subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM). They are forced to undergo the horrific procedure – even though it is illegal and can result in death – by their families who believe it is an important cultural practice.
Their only option is to escape.
For decades, there was nowhere for the girls to run to. They could risk the bush, with its wild animals, or go to a new town – but the risks for a prepubescent girl with no money or connections were high. It meant these girls ended up being forced to undergo the terrors of FGM.
Until now. Because the girls finally have somewhere to escape to: Rhobi Samwelly’s safe house.
Samwelly was a victim of FGM back when she was a child. “I didn’t want it because my friend had died from it. She was thrown to the bush and her mum was told, keep quiet about this. Don’t tell anyone. So when my parents told me I had to have it, in my head I thought, where could I go? If I’d had a place to escape to I would have. But there wasn’t anywhere to go.
“But I underwent it because my parents promised me you won’t die because we will select a good circumciser for you.”
Samwelly almost bled to death and was unconscious for hours. When she eventually woke up, her parents were so relieved they promised they’d never cut her younger sisters. Samwelly saved those women, but now she has made it her mission to save more of Tanzania’s girls and women.
She has founded a safe house in the Tanzanian town of Mugumu for girls to escape to during the traditional cutting season, which takes place in December every alternate year. The last season took place in 2014, and 154 girls ended up at the safe house.
It began during the cutting season of 2012 after some girls were educated about the dangers of FGM but had nowhere to go to escape it. “They ran to our helpers to ask them to protect them,” says Samwelly. “This was the challenge for us.”
Classes are held at the safe house for the girls who have escaped from their families, and the threat of FGM
Now the safe house is funded by the Anglican Church and supported by other churches together with the local mosque. It can house 40 girls though no one is ever turned away – instead the girls sleep two or three to a bed, or sleep on mattresses on the floor.
They can stay there free of charge until they are no longer at risk of FGM or other serious abuse. They are encouraged into secondary education – something not all girls in Tanzania have a chance to do – and all their basic needs are met. The girls can also access vocational training, such as learning tailoring, crafts and cooking skills.
“Living there gives them a sense of community,” says Samwelly. “It’s like a big family. They’re friends. Although sometimes we have some challenges because the girls come form different clans. We’re trying to teach them to love each other and see all people as the same with equal rights and equal needs.”
Most of the girls stay throughout the cutting season, a time when traditional community leaders organise illegal circumcisions. During this period, the safe house’s volunteers start their most important work: speaking to the girls’ parents.
The volunteers, typically men who have seen the serious health problems and pain caused by FGM, try to convince the girls’ families to not force FGM on their daughters. Their goal is to get the parents to sign an official police declaration form promising they won’t attempt FGM again.
“We started to build a relationship between the parents and the girls,” says Samwelly, describing what happened during the last cutting season. “We visited their homes and give information to the parents. Some of the girls were still in primary school.
Rhobi Samwelly negotiates with the parents of children who have run away to the safe house
“Some of the parents agreed and promise they wouldn’t take the girls for FGM again. The parents, the police, the village chairman and the safe house all signed an official form. Some parents understood and said it truly from the heart that they’re committed.”
But not all the parents are so easy to convince. “Some of the fathers are very sad their daughters escaped FGM,” she says. “Some of the fathers are secretaries for traditional leaders and if their girls don’t have FGM the traditional leaders will drop them from that position and select another man. So the fathers want the girls to come back.”
Other parents are desperate for their daughters to undergo FGM because it could lead to marriage, and thus a financial bonus. “Some men want to marry girls and they tell their fathers: ‘You have a very beautiful daughter. I wish I could marry her. I can give you 15 cows.’ Then they put restrictions forcing her to have FGM. The man has the promise that he’ll get the FGM.”
Parents in these situations often pretend to have changed their ways so the girls can come back and be cut during the next season. But the safe house workers are generally aware of this, and will contact the police who then put on the pressure. This means repeat visits and questioning by officers. “When they reach that point they see they can be taken to the prison,” says Samwelly. “We don’t give them the girl back until they officially promise they won’t do it.”
Once the girls do return home, Samwelly still checks up on them. “We ask teachers if the girls come to school and how they’re doing. We ask the girls, how are they feeling? Have they had a hard time at home from their parents and brothers? If there are some challenges, we talk again to the parents.
“Some girls don’t succeed in going home because their parents won’t let them go to secondary school. Some were raped by their fathers so we won’t take them home, and some parents will not promise to not force them to have FGM. We have 34 girls today.”
Some of these are girls are as young as nine or 10, and have serious injuries from parents who tried to force FGM on them. One 10-year-old arrived at the safe house bleeding from a machete wound on her leg.
Police officer, Paul Paresso, collects personal data from the girls at the safe house
The safe house protects these girls, and the volunteers go out of their way to try and help anyone who needs to come to the house. “It is difficult for the girls to escape,” says Samwelly. “Some of the villages are very far from the safe house and the girls have to walk very far.
“Some use our volunteers. When the girls are escaping they hide in the bushes and they call us. Sometimes we’ll send a car to go and rescue them from the bush and take them to the safe house. Once the car broken down and we failed to rescue these girls. Two managed to escape but five of them were cut because of our delay.”
It is chilling to think that five young girls underwent FGM because the safe house’s old car broke down, but it is an example of how much it is changing the community. The safe house does this in a number of ways.
“We are meeting with the traditional leaders and talking to them about the effects of FGM,” says Samwelly, referring to the unofficial village leaders who still encourage the practice. “There are some people who are changing. Three traditional leaders changed in 2012. The girls in those areas are now in secondary schools.
“Even today we’re talking with more leaders in other areas telling them about the effects of FGM. They normally say, we’re not forcing people, they choose it. But we ask them, why are they planning the cutting season and the timetable?”
The volunteers are also speaking to children in communities, and local councils are supporting them by telling each village about the safe house, and the effects of FGM. “We put more emphasis on the young girls and boys, telling them about the effects. We wants boys to know what happens to girls who have had FGM,” she says.
“The boys promise they won’t seek to marry girls who have had FGM. We’re trying to put some challenges to the community. We want people to stop forcing girls to have FGM.”