LONDON (TrustLaw) - Since her decision to speak out in a 1997 Marie Claire interview about her circumcision as a child, the Somali model Waris Dirie has been a vocal campaigner against female genital mutilation. Born in 1965 to a nomadic family in the Galkayo region of Somalia, Dirie was circumcised at the age of five, a custom practiced by her community to ensure women remain virgins until marriage.
At 13, Dirie ran away from home to escape a forced marriage to a man old enough to be her grandfather; he offered five camels as payment. She eventually moved to London to work as a maid for her uncle, the Somali ambassador. It was there that she was discovered by a leading British photographer and began a successful modeling career.
Her biography Desert Flower was published in 1997 and that year she was also appointed a UN Special Ambassador for the elimination of Female Genital Mutilation. In 2002, she set up the Desert Flower Foundation, which aims to address FGM through the economic empowerment of women in Africa.
Dirie spoke to TrustLaw about why the practice of FGM endures, the work of her foundation and the importance of investing in women’s education.
When did you first realise that circumcision was not something that happened to all women?
When I lived in England. Before that, I lived in a society where all women were mutilated. The mutilation was also a taboo, even though everyone knew about its cruelty and the consequences for our sexual and overall health. Yet I always knew that what was being done to us was not right, that it was against nature. So I was more relieved than surprised when I learned that there are societies that do not mutilate their women.
How difficult was it to talk publicly about what happened to you and has it got easier or harder over time?
It was very difficult in the beginning. But I always knew that it was something I had to do. I could not have lived with the thought that I had the chance to give all those girls out there who still fall victim to this cruel practice a voice and did not dare to. When I first spoke out, I did not know what would happen, and of course people were shocked.
Today I often get frustrated. The international community is doing far too little to stop this crime on innocent little girls; f150 million women worldwide are affected by FGM. It’s widespread in Africa and Asia. And it has continued in immigrant communities in Europe, the U.S., Canada and Australia. When it comes to FGM, the women in the “Third World” have no lobby. Where are the Hollywood stars, the rock stars, the billionaires? Where are the world leaders? Is this subject not important enough or too dirty, as it deals with the destruction of female genitals? It is a shame that such a barbarity still exists in the 21st century.
The practice of FGM is closely tied to marriage. Why do families go to such lengths to improve their daughters’ marriage prospects?
In societies where women are being mutilated, marriage is nothing but a trade. Women and girls are treated like goods that one can sell and buy. Most of these beautiful little girls are minors, some less than ten years old, sold to old men and being slaves for the rest of their lives. Getting a good price for your daughter is about securing an important source of income for a family. This is something that really needs to change as it plays a big part in keeping FGM in place in these societies.
According to your foundation, FGM is being performed on increasingly younger girls, including those who are days, weeks or months old. Why?
Different societies and groups perform FGM at different ages. In Somalia, for example, it is usually done when the girls are between two and five years old. In Kenya, Egypt and other countries, it is done on teenagers when they are considered fit for marriage. The reason that some societies have started to perform it earlier in a girl’s life is that they think it will be easier to cover up. So in a way, it's a reaction to a changing perception of the practice and an attempt to keep it secret. A five or ten year old might talk about it to her friends or teachers, a newborn baby can't do that.
What are some of the health problems that you and other circumcised women have to live with as a result of being cut?
First of all, there is a very real danger of dying as a result of the procedure, as we see over and over again. The girls die from shock, loss of blood or infections. Those who survive suffer from recurring infections that often result in infertility, chronic pain, pain while urinating and so on. The scar tissue around the vulva also creates a lot of problems during childbirth because the skin does not stretch the way it does for a healthy woman. And then there is the psychological trauma that creates many problems long after the mutilation.
Does more need to be done to involve men and boys in efforts to end FGM?
While it is performed by women and women make sure that it continues to be performed, men play a big part in this, too. They are the ones who usually make all the decisions. It would make a very big difference if men were to say that they want to marry women that are not mutilated. They have a big role in this tragedy and they need to be a part of stopping FGM for good.
Why do immigrant families in Europe and the US continue the practice of FGM?
Their perception of women does not necessarily change just because they live in the West. Do you think that here in the West women are usually portrayed as strong, independent, and smart? A lot of the time, they are portrayed as sexual objects. Many immigrants do not want their daughters to become part of such a society, so they resort to continuing what they believe keeps a woman “clean” and non-sexual.
Can you describe your foundation’s approach to combating FGM?
The work of the Desert Flower Foundation (www.desertflowerfoundation.org) is based on two tiers: one is raising awareness of FGM through speeches, presentations, interviews, campaigns in the media and on social platforms; providing information to schools, universities, doctors and midwives; and political lobbying to implement laws against FGM and to support projects of other NGOs. The second tier is trying to have a lasting impact on the lives of women in societies practicing FGM. I am absolutely convinced that a woman who is educated and financially independent is much less likely to mutilate her daughter. This is why my foundation supports projects that create qualified jobs for women in Africa and invests in education.
Do you think FGM will end in your lifetime?
Yes, yes, yes! What I know is that I will not stop fighting until there is not one single girl on this planet affected by this cruel crime.