In the Name of Your Daughter: An Interview with Filmmaker Giselle Portenier

April 25, 2022

 
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By 
Ella Hardy

This month, I sat down with filmmaker Giselle Portenier to talk about her groundbreaking 2018 documentary “In the Name of Your Daughter”. The film centres on Rhobi Samwelly, a Tanzanian woman who runs a Safe House, helping young girls escape Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) forced on them by their own families. Giselle is a Canadian filmmaker and journalist who has made countless films on human rights. Her latest focus is fighting FGM in Tanzania and around the world and she has started her own NGO: End FGM Canada Network to combat FGM and support survivors of FGM in Canada.

What is Female Genital Mutilation?

"Female genital mutilation is, in my mind, the worst systematic abuse of girls and women’s human rights,” was Giselle’s answer when asked why FGM is an issue, “Female genital mutilation is the alteration of female genitalia for non-medical reasons, and it can be very extreme and includes what's called infibulation which means removing all the external genitalia and closing up what's left, allowing only a tiny opening for the passing of urine and menstrual blood. So, it's a very severe human rights abuse and it's now happening, we know, in more than 90 countries around the world."

Giselle has made documentaries on topics ranging from honor killings in Pakistan, the impacts of war on Congolese children to the consequences of sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide. Why, I asked, did the plight of girls escaping FGM in Tanzania capture her attention? “ I think we need to step up and take action on FGM. It's a topic that is largely ignored in many governments, by many institutions and, indeed, by the MeToo movement. The MeToo movement has largely ignored the issue of Female Genital Mutilation and it’s a terrible form of sexual violence, abuse of children's rights and abuse of human rights so I really wanted to make a documentary about it."

Giselle Portenier, surrounded by girls from Safe House

The Making of In the Name of Your Daughter

Her initial interest in FGM led her to create a Google Alert on the topic, as she says it is very difficult to get funding for documentaries on FGM, "A lot of broadcasters and others think that audiences won't come to this topic,” This Google Alert led her to a story about Rhobi Samwelly, a Tanzanian woman and survivor of FGM who currently runs two Safe Houses in the Butiama and Serengeti districts of the Mara Region of Tanzania: “I ended up going to Tanzania to do a reconnaissance mission to see if this would make a good film and whether Rhobi felt comfortable trusting me to bring the story of the girls and the Safe House to the world. That's how it all started. Then I launched a fundraising campaign to raise money and we ended up getting money and contributions from hundreds of people in over forty countries.”

I asked Giselle how she gained the trust of the girls in the film, some of whom are as young as 8 years old, in sharing their personal experiences with FGM: “I managed to put together a fantastic Tanzanian crew for the making of the documentary, so I was the only non-Tanzanian person there”, She explained that new girls were coming to the Safe House during the filming. Giselle and her crew would have assemblies with the girls, explaining to them that they wanted to tell the story of FGM through their lived experiences, “what is really so different about this story and this film is the voices of the girls, which have never really been heard before in a documentary format."

However, filming the documentary was not without challenges, as she did not speak the local languages and engaging with the community was difficult, especially as some communities in Northern Tanzania are hostile to outsiders interfering in the local practice of FGM. “On a couple of occasions, we felt that there was real danger in going to the communities to film and it was tough to make the decision whether to go or not,” Giselle said, “in the end, we did go and in the end, we got some of our best material by making that decision."

The Practice of Female Genital Mutilation continues

The government of Tanzania banned FGM in 1998, but the practice continues in some areas, with the World Health Organization estimating that around 10% of girls still undergo this ‘rite of passage’. I asked Giselle why communities might continue to practice FGM despite its criminalization: "In Tanzania and everywhere in the ninety-plus countries where FGM is known to happen, the main reason for it is to control a girl's sexuality and that's the same in Tanzania. It is thought that if you put a girl through Female Genital Mutilation, you will decrease her sexual pleasure and therefore she will be purer, she will be more faithful, she won't be promiscuous and so on." She also pointed out that FGM is ingrained in society: “In Tanzania, Female Genital Mutilation is part of the economic structure. Girls are seen as the property of their parents. When girls get married, the parents get a bride price and if the girl has been mutilated, the bride price doubles. In Tanzania, the bride price is usually given in the form of cows, so for a cut girl the family would get twice the number of cows as for an uncut girl.”

When I asked Giselle about Rhobi’s approach with the families who are planning to cut their daughters, she told me that the approach of reconciling the girls with their families through community education works: 

“I did see families change their minds on many occasions, not always because some families just don't want to change their minds. In fact, some girls have been at the Safe House for several years because their families would never commit to not cutting their daughters. But generally speaking it is successful, maybe not the first time, maybe not the second time, but Rhobi and her team go back time and again to try and get the families to change their minds and over time they do manage it with most of the families."

Rhobi Samwelly, who runs a Safe House for girls escaping FGM, speaks to a local audience

Screening In the Name of Your Daughter for a Tanzanian Audience

Through continued contact with Rhobi and with the girls from Safe House, the film has been screened in Tanzania at community screenings, at film festivals across the world and for parliaments in England, Australia, the Netherlands and Canada. Giselle tells me that the community screenings in Tanzania have helped more young girls to escape FGM through Rhobi Samwelly’s Safe House: “It has changed minds and hearts. I think some parents have seen the light and are protecting their daughters more. When you have a village screening in Tanzania outside, it's dark, there's not a lot of entertainment in the villages so everybody comes, from the young children to the parents, grandmothers, grandfathers, elders, the religious leaders - everyone is there at the screening and they all see the documentary which means that everyone is talking about Female Genital Mutilation and what to do about it. I actually had the incredible privilege of being at the very first village screening in Tanzania with the documentary and the following day three young girls came to the safe house. They were 8 and 9 years old and one of them was brought to the safe house by her own brother, so that's change in the making."

When I asked Giselle about screenings of the film in areas without Safe Houses, she agreed that it was a concern: “I feel that the film needs to be shown in places where there are Safe Houses, so if girls want to run away they can run away.” She also told me that “The international community has concerns about sponsoring Safe Houses and one of those concerns is simply that they're ongoing and that they require financial investment for years and the international community, by and large, isn't so keen on that.”

Continuing the fight against FGM in Canada

Giselle is continuing her fight to draw the international community’s attention to FGM with her NGO End FGM Canada Network: 

“I discovered that we probably have over 100,000 survivors and we have girls at risk, yet Female Genital Mutilation is not on our agenda, it's not being talked about. So, I founded the End FGM Canada Network along with three others and I'm still the co-chair of the Network.Together we're trying to draw attention to this issue in Canada and we've had quite a bit of success so that's another indirect impact of the documentary."

I asked her to tell me more about the problem of FGM in Canada, to which she replied, "The issue of Female Genital Mutilation I think is very big in Canada but people don't know about it because we have a culture of silence and a culture of silencing. So, people who want to talk about Female Genital Mutilation are silenced both by the communities and by the whole notion of we shouldn't be talking about other people's cultural habits so that's a big challenge. You know what I discovered is that we have over 100,000 survivors and that there is plenty of evidence of girls being taken for what's called 'vacation cutting' I personally have met 5 young women who were taken back to their home countries and forced to undergo Female Genital Mutilation, these are girls are now in their twenties. We have many girls also who came to Canada already having been through Female Genital Mutilation and those girls have nowhere to turn because we don't have any kind of support for them, and we have no protocols in place to support girls or to protect girls who are at risk.”

Through her NGO and screening of the documentary, Giselle hopes to continue her work advocating against FGM. She tells me that through new funding from the government, End FGM Canada Network is embarking on a project to create virtual modules educating healthcare professionals, educators, mental health professionals and child protection workers on FGM. “We have a long way to go here in Canada,” she tells me, “But, we've started doing that so it's fantastic."

Since becoming a part of our WHY STORIES catalog, ‘In the Name of Your Daughter’ has been screened in Lusaka in Zambia, Arusha in Tanzania, South Africa, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan  and in schools around Denmark.  

‘In the Name of Your Daughter’ is part of THE WHY Foundation’s ‘Film of the Month’, available for free on YouTube for the month of April. Check out the film here

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