The Horror of Female Genital Mutilation

Click for Full Image Size
Listen to article

Female genital mutilation is still widely practiced in Africa, It is (commonly described as female circumcision) performed across all ages---on infants, young girls, teenagers, and women. Most girls undergo the ritual live in Africa. Every 10 seconds a girl becomes a victim to FGM.They suffer for the rest of their lives from physical and psychological pain, many of them die. After reading Waris'' book "Desert Flower" I was shocked to find out that some countries in the world still practice the "ritual" of FGM. It made me intensely angry and sick to my stomach to know that amongst everything else girls/women go through in these few countries, that, FGM is another painful horror they have to live with for the rest of their lives. It's dreadfully and immorally wrong to make girls endure this pain. Desert Flower is an important book because it portrays the brutal reality of FGM in Africa and beyond.

Waris Dirie is most definitely a female role model of true beauty, strength and courage, whom everyone should look up to. I admire her for her outstanding bravery and courage to speak out about FGM. Reading her book, I cried all the way through. Great book, good inspiration.

When Waris was five, she went true the compulsory traditional circumcision. The oppression and pain she suffered in her childhood is so upsetting and depressing to believe that FGM and arranged marriages still occur as part of cultural or religious beliefs. I think it's wonderful that she has gone so far and is able to write a non judging narrative on her life.Waris is a very good example of a brave woman. She has escaped from the taboo of the circumcisation to explain to everybody in the world that it is still happening in some countries. All the action she took to go forward in her life. Waris is a very bold Lady who is never afraid of taking on challenges. She dares to try everything. She''s an embodiment of African beauty. Waris has inspired me in so many ways. I''m from a country called Nigeria and this ritual is still done in some parts of the country. And I hope it will stop someday soon.

Her name means desert flower. She was born in 1965 as daughter of a nomad family in the region of Gallacaio in the Somalian desert near the border to Ethiopia. At age five she said her mother took her to a gypsy woman, who circumcised her. Held by her mother and sitting on a rock, the gypsy woman cut the clitoris as well as the labia minora and the labia majora with an old razor blade, and then she sewed the wound coarsely, leaving only a tiny hole to urinate. When an uncle of hers - newly-appointed ambassador of Somalia in London was looking for a house help for his household in London, Waris took the chance! The journey to London turned out to be an adventure for her. She said that she could not speak English, could neither read nor write and had never seen an airplane from close before in her life... At the expiration of her uncle''s posting,Waris stayed in London alone only with some pound notes in her pockets, doing menial jobs for a living. She has written 2 books so far, both have become bestsellers throughout the world. In 1997 her biography “Desert flower” was published in New York and made it number 1 of the bestselling lists in many countries. In Germany “Desert flower” was in the top ten of the “Spiegel” bestselling list for 120 weeks. In 1998, 20 Years after her escape, she decided to visit her family in Somalia. A bold venture, because Somalia had been suffering from civil war and famine for 12 years. She wrote about this journey in her second book “Desert Dawn”. It has also become an international bestseller.”There will be a few hitches and glitches on your journey to success, but please don''t be put off. It''s the way you handle the obstacles that counts, and you can achieve your goal".. Says Waris.

Waris has been the face of Revlon and a fashion model, but Dirie''s most important work is the face she brought to Female Gender Mutilation (FGM). Using her fame as a model, Dirie brought widespread attention to FGM when she appeared on Oprah and other media and through her best-selling book Desert Children. She''s been a special UN Ambassador, and, today, runs the Waris Dire Foundation to put a stop to Female Gender Mutilation. She's appeared in a Revlon commercial with Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer and Lauren Hutton, appeared on the covers of big fashion magazines: Elle, Glamour, Italian Vogue, and British and American Vogue.Still, Revlon lists her as “the most beautiful woman in the world” together with Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell.
On a cold Monday morning, Waris took some time off her busy schedule to talk to me about herself and her career. Here the Somali-born supermodel-humanitarian Waris Dirie describes her experience in this exclusive interview.- Gbenga Teejay Okunlola
[email protected]

TV: Pls, briefly give us an insight into your background?

Waris: I''m a desert girl. Born into a nomad family in Somalia, I learned to survive in the desert. When I was a little five year old girl, I met the horrible fate of millions of women: the cruel practice of female genital mutilation. Somehow I knew that what they did to me was wrong and harmful. I escaped from an arranged marriage and made my way through the desert on my own. I came to Europe as a maid working for a relative in London. One day I was discovered by chance by a photographer and got directly involved in the world of big fashion and glamour, the model-business. My decision to use my popularity to fight against FGM again completely changed my life.You see, I was in many different situations throughout my life - and I did survive all of them. This idea empowers me to keep going.

TV: Growing up, how was your childhood and how did some of your childhood experiences shape who you are today? And tell us more about your books?

Waris: Everyday everywhere here in Europe I am shocked to see how much good food is wasted. It is like a "tradition" in restaurants that everybody sends tons of food back to the kitchen. I am not able to ignore it. It is the same thing with the waste of water. We live in a sick society that wastes everything and leaves so much trash behind. That's definitely something I notice because of my childhood experiences.

With my books I tried to share my life between tradition and mutilation, escape and flight, catwalks and glamour, finally my work as UN-special ambassador and international campaigner against FGM, with the people. These are very different experiences and I hope that my readers will contribute their part in the abolition of female genital mutilation. My books were written to put an end to this unbelievably cruel horror more than 150 millions of women are facing, a goal we need to achieve as soon as possible.

TV: What is female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/FGC)? Who performs FGM, at what age and for what reasons? Health consequences of FGM?

Waris: Female Genital Mutilation is a destructive operation, during which the female genitals are partly or entirely removed or injured. Most often the mutilation is performed before puberty, often on girls between the age of four and eight, but recently it is increasingly performed on nurslings who are only a couple of days, weeks or months old. Female Genital Mutilation happens primarily in Africa, in particular in North-Eastern, Eastern and Western Africa. However, it also takes place in the Middle East, in South-East Asia - and also among immigrants in Europe. According to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO) 150 million women are affected by it world-wide. In Europe, the number of mutilated women or girls and women threatened by FGM amounts up to 500,000. FGM is usually performed by "professional" circumcisers, women who are enjoying a high reputation in their societies. It is also performed by traditional midwives and occasionally by healers, barbers or nurses or doctors trained in Western medicine. The procedure is usually performed without anesthetic and under catastrophic hygienic circumstances. Knives, scissors, razor blades or pieces of broken glass are used as instruments among others. In the communities practicing FGM, it initially served as an initiation rite, marking a girl''s transition to adulthood, which was celebrated with major festivities. Still today, women living in areas in which FGM is performed believe that they will only become a real woman after the mutilation - even in regions where the mutilation is no longer part of an initiation rite.

Various reasons are provided, which are supposed to justify FGM - for instance the chastity of women; also, the mutilation is meant to ensure that the girls will still be virgins when they are married. Hygiene, aesthetics and health may also be found among the reasons provided. A further reason provided frequently is religion. In Muslim communities in Africa, in which FGM is performed, reference is made to the Qu''ran. But the Qur'an does not provide for Female Genital Mutilation - it has nothing to do with religion.

This cruel operation causes severe health (both physical and mental) consequences. The immediate effects of the procedure may include severe hemorrhage, inflammation, tetanus, bladder atony or sepsis - consequences, which frequently result in death. HIV/AIDS may also be passed on by unsterile instruments. In addition to the mental trauma caused by the procedure and the loss of sexual sensation, the victims often suffer for a long time from pain when urinating and during menstruation. Sitting and walking may become a torture, due to the rubbing of clothing on the scars or bruises. The problems may also include cysts, abscesses, infections of the bladder and incontinence. Infertility is among the possible long term consequences. Intercourse is often considered to be highly painful. Giving birth to a child may cause increased bleeding and rupture of tissue. The birth may take longer than usual, caesareans are frequent.

TV: Medically, would you say that female genital mutilation may contribute to the spread of AIDS? Is there a link between FGM/FGC and the risk of HIV/AIDS infection?

Waris: Of course it is linked. When the women who perform FGM on the girls - a very painful and bloody procedure - use the same razor blade to mutilate several young girls, this definitely contributes to the spread of AIDS.

TV: Would you say without cutting off a daughter''s clitoris, she is considered less marriageable? Unless I''ve been misinformed, the reason they do this is to make sex unpleasurable to women. The idea being, if she doesn''t enjoy sex, your wife won''t have to use her feminine charms to seduce strange men and wreck havoc on society. My question is who wants to have sex with a woman who isn''t able to enjoy it?

Waris:That is one of the basic problems: Men and women do not communicate with each other about things like sex, the mutilation, the pain and so on. Women are indoctrinated culturally not to tell anybody about their suffering because it is said to be "tradition". Most men do not know anything about their women''s suffering; they mostly just think that "she doesn''t like sex".

Because of this lack of communication sex is a painful duty rather than something pleasurable. Recently a man told me his sad view on the problem: every time he wanted to have sex with his wife in order to procreate, he had to rape her.

Every member of communities practicing FGM is completely sure that girls need to be mutilated in order to live a respectful life. Some also say that the clitoris would begin to rot away. Men are indoctrinated that their bride needs to be mutilated in order to protect her virginity and honor. Only education and information will be able to break these harmful taboos.

TV: What has been the response since you started raising the awareness concerning this crime? Tell us more about your company Waris Dirie Foundation. What inspired you to found it? How can people support your efforts to put an end to FGM?

Waris: I think that we did a good job in raising awareness about this cruel procedure. The thing that always puts me down is that according to estimates of UNICEF 8000 girls will be mutilated today, as will be tomorrow and any other day. Still, after ten years of campaigning against FGM. But the protest against FGM is becoming stronger all over the world. The voice of my African sisters against FGM is getting louder. This year we were happy to see huge demonstrations against the mutilations in Egypt. What I see as another glimmer of hope is that finally some religious leaders start to oppose FGM. If all of them would do that, the problem would become history all of a sudden. I hope, that every religious leader, no matter whether Islamic scholars or Coptic priest or other, will join our campaign.

My foundation''s aim is to make FGM visible, break the taboos around this topic and put it on every political agenda worldwide. If you would like to know more about my campaigns, about possibilities to support our fight or to get to know more about FGM, check out my website:

TV: It''s quite simple, really.If you''re not part of the solution , then you are part of the problem.

Warris: Something like that.

TV: Let's talk about your modeling career. How did you worked your way up as a model in demand. Gracing the catwalks of Milan, London and Paris, and posed for Levi's, Revlon and L'Oreal.etc? How did you get discovered? Is the life of a model one glitzy round of catwalk shows and generally enjoying the high life?

Waris: I got involved by chance. I was very surprised by this glitzy world, so I just made my way through those doors that opened for me. Of course, when you are involved, it is not that glitzy after all. It is a race for perfect beauty. Nobody can win but a lot of girls ruin themselves in their attempt to reach the ultimate goal.

TV: Obviously, You have traveled a lot. What is one destination you still need a stamp for on your passport?

Waris:There are plenty! As I was a refugee from Somalia, I only received my passport two years ago or something like that. I can tell you that it is a great feeling to have a passport enabling you to travel all over the world. Until I got this "ticket to freedom" I had to be officially invited to every single event, otherwise I couldn''t pass customs and was not allowed to cross any border. You are practically handicapped without a passport, it is embarrassing.

TV:Do you have any words of advice to any young people who may want to follow your path? What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

Waris: It is possible to create your own path. Respect the people and have enough courage to name injustices.

TV:Thank you very much for your time, Waris. That was really insightful.

Waris: It''s been a pleasure meeting you.Thanks.