“The Girls of Meru is a profound depiction of the fight for human rights, in this case, the rights of girl children, to live freely without the reality and threat of sexual violence. This film poses a challenge to everyone in the world to stand and protect the rights of the most vulnerable in our midst.”
– Naa Afua Dadesen Cooper, Ph.D., 2018 Halifax Poet Laureate
“A universal tale of empowerment and agency that needs to be heard.”
– Ky’okusinga Kirunga, Director of Community Engagement and Strategic Partnerships at the Stephen Lewis Foundation
“The big heroes of this film are the little girls whose horrific experiences managed to change the law and protect thousands of other victims from suffering the same fate.”
– Judy Kibinge, award-winning Kenyan filmmaker, writer and producer
Acclaimed filmmaker Andrea Dorfman follows a remarkable collaboration over five years to tell the heartbreaking yet uplifting story of the girls of Meru and their brave steps toward meaningful equality for girls everywhere.
In Kenya, one in three girls will experience sexual violence before the age of 18, yet police investigations into the crime are the exception rather than the rule, leading to a culture of impunity around rape. But a courageous group of girls has helped set a legal precedent for child protection worldwide.
In The Girls of Meru, a multinational team led by Canadian lawyer Fiona Sampson and Tumaini Shelter head Mercy Chidi Baidoo builds the case of 11 girls to pursue an unheard of legal tactic. They challenge the Kenyan government to uphold its highly praised constitution and to hold police accountable.
The Kenyan high court responds in record time. And the real work begins.
Over five years, acclaimed filmmaker Andrea Dorfman follows the heartbreaking yet uplifting story of the girls of Meru and their brave steps toward meaningful equality for girls worldwide.
In Kenya, one in three girls will experience sexual violence before age 18, yet police investigations are the exception. In The Girls of Meru, a multinational team led by Canadian lawyer Fiona Sampson and Tumaini Shelter head Mercy Chidi Baidoo builds the case of 11 girls to pursue an unheard of legal tactic. Together they created legal history.
Eleven-year-old Alice was on her way to school when she was dragged into the Kenyan bush by a stranger. When her stepmother reported the rape, police promised to make an arrest, but only if she paid them. Alice’s stepmother had no money. So the perpetrator went free.
In Kenya, one in three girls will experience sexual violence before the age of 18, yet police investigations into the crime are the exception rather than the rule, leading to a culture of impunity around rape. But Alice and a brave group of girls like her help set a legal precedent for child protection worldwide.
Like Alice, many young rape survivors in the town of Meru end up at Tumaini Shelter, where they begin to heal. From inside Tumaini’s walls come 160 girls, ages three to 17, who sue the Kenyan government with the help of a legal team led by Canadian human rights lawyer Fiona Sampson and the head of Tumaini Shelter, Mercy Chidi Baidoo.
This international team—including lawyers and activists working together across the globe—pursue an unheard of solution to child rape: challenge the Kenyan government to uphold its newly ratified and highly praised constitution, which protects the equal rights of all, including girls. Their unique case makes legal history and sets a standard for protecting girls against sexual violence.
Over five years, filmmaker Andrea Dorfman follows the story of the Tumaini children, whose identity is court-protected, through stirring glimpses of faces, hands and feet, arresting animation, and tiny voices growing strong.
The girls of Meru—and their fight for justice—resonate across a world where the rights of young women are too often dismissed. In this heartbreaking yet uplifting documentary, Dorfman captures a brilliant pursuit for meaningful equality, one that puts the law in the hands of those who need it most.
The Girls of Meru documentary project stemmed from your work making short videos for Fiona Sampson’s NGO, The Equality Effect. How did you sense this story needed to be something more?
I first got involved with The Equality Effect when Fiona Sampson asked if I could make a short video for the organization’s website. The legal team was working on a number of cases collaboratively (for example, to criminalize marital rape in Kenya, to abolish the corroboration law in Malawi) and a video could communicate to funders, the press, educators, and others what their work was about. After I made that short video, they started to focus on one case in particular—the 160 Girls. I became fascinated with the legal complexities of the case and how the international human rights team was working together to achieve court victory, which could take years. I was curious about who the petitioners—the girls whose stories made up the evidence of the case—were, and I knew it would take time and research in order to understand their situations. At this point, I could see that the story would lend itself very well to a feature-length documentary, and I approached the National Film Board with the idea to make The Girls of Meru.
How did you work through the unique situation of having to tell a visual story without being able to show the faces of the film’s most important protagonists, the girls?
Because I wanted to protect the identities of the girls who received treatment at Tumaini Shelter (both those who were involved in the 160 Girls legal case and those who were not), I was faced with a unique challenge when filming them. As humans, we connect to faces. But it’s amazing how much we can learn about a person by how they move their hands, how they walk from behind, their eyes, and their smile. I quickly became very creative in how I filmed the girls at Tumaini. I would often frame specific parts of their bodies or film them from afar. Sometimes I’d intentionally put the camera out of focus, while at other times I’d allow a girl to be silhouetted. In the end, I don’t think it takes away from how we get to know them. In fact, I wonder if this style of filming allowed for a unique kind of intimacy.
How did you deal with spending long periods of time at Tumaini Shelter, a space that is filled with giggles and songs and children, while knowing that all the girls around you—some of them toddlers—had experienced sexual violence?
Spending time with the girls at the shelter was a privilege and a joy. It’s a place where the girls appear to feel very safe to express themselves and be free with each other. As an outsider, I felt very welcome. When I wasn’t filming, the girls would invite me to play games and to sing and dance with them. It was always joyful spending time at the shelter. This made it a paradoxical experience. Knowing the girls were there because they had experienced extreme trauma and violence was never far from my mind. But, occasionally, like I talk about in The Girls of Meru, sometimes I would momentarily forget, only to be jolted back to reality. There was one time in particular that I was playing a game with the girls. We were sitting in a circle, and one by one each of us had to take a turn dancing in the centre. One girl who was dancing and laughing must’ve been around seven years old. I knew because when she laughed, I could see that she was missing the same teeth that my seven-year-old niece was missing at the time. Somehow I managed to keep it together long enough to finish the game. It helps to know that the girls are surrounded by a lot of support at the shelter—in the form of social workers, therapeutic counsellors, volunteers, and the house mother—should they ever need anything. But like Mercy Chidi Baidoo says in the film, the scar of their rape will never go away.
Your filmmaking practice varies from shorts to features and from fiction to documentary. Are there through-lines in your work that carry from one project to the next?
Yes, I believe there are through-lines in my work in the form of themes that show up over and over. I consider myself to be a feminist, and themes around gender, such as body image, reproductive rights, and gender roles, show up in many of my films. I am also curious about the relationship between being alone and loneliness.
Most of your projects are shot in Halifax, where you live, or created in your home studio. How did the process of being in a completely different and unfamiliar environment affect the way you worked on The Girls of Meru?
Working in an unfamiliar environment and struggling with languages I don’t speak and customs I don’t know definitely gave me challenges to work with. Making The Girls of Meru was a profound learning experience and I couldn’t have made it without the incredible support that surrounded me while I was in Kenya. The access that Ripples International and The Equality Effect granted me gave me a front-row seat from which to observe the unfolding legal events. Judy Kibinge, the well-known Kenyan filmmaker, was a creative consultant on the film. She gave me great advice and also organized three shoots I couldn’t attend in Meru when the case was being fought in court. I think documentary filmmakers are by nature curious observers and learn to do well in unfamiliar environments. We know that sitting back and listening—and, oftentimes, being OK with being in awkward and uncomfortable situations—will take us to unexpected places.
How did you make the process of narrating what is essentially the story of a court case a deeply human-centred film?
I never planned to include so much of my own voice in The Girls of Meru, but through the process of editing, it started to make sense that my narration be the guide through the story. In order to make the legal case understandable, there was a certain amount of explaining that I needed to do. When I first observed the lawyers strategizing the case, I had no idea what they were talking about. The law is spoken in its own difficult-to-understand language, and so it was necessary for me to provide translation. I used the fact that I was an observer from the outside to make myself a conduit for the audience, most of whom would have been in exactly the same shoes as me. That said, I’m not pretending to be “the voice of God” in the film. I provide translation for the events as I understood them. I was granted a privileged position to witness legal history in the making while shooting The Girls of Meru, and it was important for me to make it as accessible to the audience as I could.
Given the size of the legal team—from multiple nations and contributing years of time and millions in pro bono work—how did you decide which people to focus on to best tell the story?
As I began to follow the 160 Girls legal case, it quickly became clear to me that the major players on the team were Kenyan social worker Mercy Chidi Baidoo, who was dealing with a climate of impunity towards defilement in her community, and Canadian lawyer Fiona Sampson, who helms the collaborative human rights law practice that facilitated and funded the case. Both women work with dedicated teams, without whom they could not have achieved court victory. Although I couldn’t highlight each team member individually, it was important for me to give a sense that they were vital to the process. So they are present in the film without being identified in depth. And then, of course, there are the girls who bravely lent their stories, in the form of evidence for the court case and for the documentary. Their stories ultimately led to court victory. The challenge for me in The Girls of Meru—a documentary following a process as opposed to a single character—was to make it emotionally engaging. This is why, at its heart, the protagonists of the film are the 160 girls themselves.
Do you have any sense of how the girls are doing, where they are, or what they have moved on to?
It’s impossible to say how the 160 girls, specifically, are doing today. Many of them would now be in their late teens and early twenties, graduated from high school and leading their lives, their relationship with Ripples International now long ended. But I do have a sense of how girls recently released from care at Tumaini Shelter are doing. Over the short term, they maintain a close relationship with Ripples after they are discharged. For up to two years after they’ve left, they continue to receive counselling and medical treatment. From my experience asking counsellors how the girls do when they’re back in their communities, it seems there is a spectrum. Some do very well; others, understandably, struggle at home and at school. On many occasions while I was at the shelter, I met young women who had received treatment at Tumaini years before and who had returned to volunteer or visit. They all spoke warmly of their time at the shelter, the experience having changed them. One young woman I spoke with (who would be one of the original 160 Girls) is at college studying social work and doing a work placement at the shelter.
How do you think the telling of this one very specific story will improve the lives of girls everywhere?
After the 160 Girls court case was victorious, groups from all over the world contacted the legal team—they wanted to achieve the same thing in their countries. By helping to disseminate the story of the 160 Girls victory, I think there is great potential in giving hope in the form of showing how change is possible. I think The Girls of Meru can play an important role in this task.
Dedicated to the girls whose stories led to court victory, making legal history.
In Memory of
Written and Directed by|
Director of Photography and Animation
Original Music by
Sound Edit & Design by
A very special thank you to
MERCY CHIDI BAIDOO
THE GIRLS AT TUMAINI AND ALL THEIR SUPPORTERS
DEBRA NJERI NGERU
WINNIE MUTHONI KAMAU
LISA NJERI KIHAGI
Foley & Narration Recording
Assistant Dialogue Editor
NORM ADAMS – cello
CHARLES AUSTIN – guitar, marimba, piano, melodica
JORDAN MURPHY – percussion, drum kit, cymbals
JOSHUA VAN TASSEL – marimba, hand percussion, udu, shaker
“SAY NO” (160 Girls theme song)
Composed and Performed by ROSY OHON
Produced by THE EQUALITY EFFECT
JACQUES BERTRAND SIMARD
LESLIE ANNE POYNTZ
Executive Director English Program
MICHELLE VAN BEUSEKOM