Born into a goat-herding nomad family living in the desert in tribal Somalia near the border of Ethiopia in 1965, little did Waris Dirie know what her life’s journey would bring. Dirie, who comes from a land where women are the backbone of the country, managed to overcome obstacles that many would find totally defeating. Little did she know that one day she would be a global spokesperson for young girls whose parents either have subjected or plan on subjecting them to one of the most barbaric practices in the world, female genital mutilation (FGM) or female circumcision.
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Dirie fled her homeland at age 13, after her father tried to trade her in a marriage for five camels to a man who could have been her grandfather. Dirie’s life seemed to be divinely guided as she made her way to England and wound up doing stints as a maid and construction worker.
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When Dirie landed a gig at the fast food chain McDonalds, she was discovered by famed fashion photographer Terence Donovan and her career as a model skyrocketed from there. She was soon gracing the covers of Vogue, Glamour, and Elle magazines.
In 1996, Dirie made the decision to use her fame to initiate her personal global campaign to make FGM public. Dirie was appointed that same year as a UN Special Ambassador for the elimination of FGM. The following year, Dirie wrote the New York Times autobiographical best-seller “Desert Flower,” and two years later, the book was translated into an award-winning film. In 2001, Dirie decided she needed to continue her story so she penned a continuation to the first “Desert Flower” book entitled “Desert Dawn.” The second novel tells the story of Dirie being reunited with her family after escaping from them some 20 years earlier.
In 2002, Dirie founded the Desert Flower Foundation, which focuses on bringing worldwide public awareness to the devastation of FGM, which is still practiced in some 28 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Due to immigration in Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia, though, these other countries are increasingly being affected. The U.N. reports that 8,000 girls are victims of this heinous act every day.
Thus far, about 150-million girls and women have had their genitals mutilated. Aside from death, complications from the procedure include serious infections, HIV, abscesses, small benign tumors, hemorrhages, shock, and clitoral cysts. The long-term effects may also include kidney stones, sterility, sexual dysfunction, depression, various urinary tract infections and various gynecological and obstetric problems.
Waris Dirie’s books have made Female Genital Mutilation an international topic. Since 2002, 16 African countries have banned FGM, including Kenya, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Togo, and Benin, as a consequence of the strong pressure by the international community. Waris Dirie has become the very vocal speaker of a truth that would have remained under wraps. As the Mother of two, a former supermodel, the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, Dirie stands as a beacon of success and a symbol of hope for improving the status of women and human rights worldwide.
Dirie recently spoke to NewsOne about her life’s mission and crusade against the atrocities of FGM:
NewsOne: Has there been any significant progress with regards to female genital mutilation (FGM)? Are the numbers of victims growing?
Waris Dirie: Yes, there certainly has been progress. Many countries have adopted stricter laws against FGM, especially in Africa and Europe. While laws alone are not enough, they are an important message, showing parents that what they are planning to do is not OK and that it is, in fact, illegal. Many countries have also adopted special FGM campaigns, which help raise awareness, but there are still so many things that need to be done, because FGM will only be eradicated for good if the attitude of communities toward women change drastically.
That is what I am trying to foster through several projects in Africa that help empower women by providing training, education, and securing sustainable and fair-paying jobs.
N1: What are the psychological and physical effects of female genital mutilation? How has FGM affected you?
WD: There are serious physical as well as psychological consequences of FGM and they affect the girls and women all their lives. The practice itself is extremely painful and traumatizing and because of the unsanitary conditions (use of dirty razor blades, glass, sharpened stones) under which the procedure is performed and the excessive bleeding that results from it, many girls die as did my sister and my cousin. Many of the women also become high risk when giving birth to a child and suffer from chronic pain and permanent inflammations.
Mentally, the women often suffer from anxiety, depression, flashbacks and nightmares.
FGM has interfered with my personal life in every aspect. In addition to the physical pain and complications I had to deal with, it has also impacted my psychological health. I still suffer from flashbacks and nightmares, and there were times when I did not feel like a complete woman because of what was done to me.
N1: How can FGM be stopped?
WD: First of all, communities need to be educated in the fact that FGM is NOT prescribed by any religion and it is NOT part of a culture! It is a pure human rights violation and that is how it needs to be dealt with. And secondly, FGM will only stop when men in these types of societies, where the practice is rampant, overcome their fear and are no longer threatened by the strength and power of women and finally give them the position in society that they so rightly deserve. Men will have to also overcome their fear of female sexuality. That’s when FGM will cease to exist.
N1: Why did you start the Desert Flower Foundation? How does the organization help to curb the practice of FGM?
WD: I started my foundation, because I wanted the change to happen. When I became a successful model, I had the means and the audience to change something, and I just knew I had to cease the opportunity to do so. My foundation works to end this practice on several different levels. For many years, we focused on raising awareness on the issues, which was very important, given that most people had never heard about it. The campaigns, in order to make this problem more widely known, had great results on political levels.
We saw many countries changing their laws and making FGM illegal and punishable. However, it did not have a big impact on people who actually practiced it. I realized that even if a Mother knows about the dangers of FGM, they will still be pressured to have their daughters mutilated if the financial survival of their families depends on it. In many communities, a girl can only be married if she is mutilated. This type of outdated belief system must change too. Women need more financial independence in order to be able to take responsible decisions for their families. My foundation also works on projects that help women in Africa to achieve long-term and sustainable employment so that they can again benefit their families monetarily.
N1:Tell me about the film “Desert Flower.” Was it a dream come true for you? Was it a positive experience and did the message that you wanted relayed to audiences come through?
The film was not my dream, and to be honest, I hesitated a lot before I finally said yes. It was a very emotional but fulfilling experience. It was difficult for me to see my own childhood, my own family and my life on a huge movie screen. But I agreed to making this movie because I knew that it would reach much more people than the book did, and that is exactly what happened. I was deluged with e-mails from so many people throughout the world telling me that they saw the movie and [were grateful that I made] them aware of FGM. Many of these people wanted to do something about the crime and help in any way. So making the movie was absolutely right and all the difficulties and hard work were certainly well worth it after it was said and done.
N1: What fuels you? Who are your mentors?
WD: I have no mentors. What drives me forward is the thought of thousands of vulnerable little girls who have to go through the unbearable pain of FGM. Did you know that every 10 seconds one girl is mutilated? This is so unacceptable which is why I can never give up fighting against this form of torture.
N1: What is on your agenda now? What projects are you now tackling?
WD: At the moment, I am working on a new project with fair trade companies in Ethiopia and Kenya that will produce scarves and other fair trade products for us. My immediate goal is to empower women in communities where FGM is practiced in order to provide them with education and jobs so that they can generate their own income. I am convinced that a confident, independent woman who is in charge of her own finances will not choose to mutilate her daughters just so that they can be married for some kind of monetary gain.