Waris Dirie: The Voice Against Female Genital Mutilation
The World Health Organization estimates that 100 to 140 million women and girls around the world have been subjected to female genital mutilation. This is often done without anaesthetic and under unhygienic conditions. One woman has made it her mission to outlaw this practice by raising public awareness and offering support to its victims. Her name is Waris Dirie, the founder of the Desert Flower Foundation. By Grace Chen.
AT THE TENDER AGE OF FIVE she was held down by her mother while a gypsy woman stitched closed her vaginal opening with thorns. Before this, one of her sisters bled to death after undergoing what was known to the community as a ‘rite of passage’. A six-year-old cousin also lost her life the same way, after succumbing to infection.
Describing the pain, the same little girl who survived the ordeal and who later became one of the world’s top fashion models and human rights activists against female genital mutilation (FGM), recalls, ‘It’s like someone is slicing through the meat of your thigh or cutting off your arm, except this is the most sensitive part of your body.’
On the Desert Flower Foundation website, Waris is frank in describing the procedure as a destructive operation and a means to subjugate women by inhibiting their sexual feelings. Contrary to popular belief, FGM is practiced not only in Africa but also in the Middle East and Southeast Asia—in various degrees of severity. Waris, who is now an Austrian citizen, is quick to point out that this is not only an issue for women, but for men as well. ‘As the mother of two boys, I feel we have to teach men early. Every education begins with Mama. We have to rethink what we teach our sons. That’s the most important thing,’ she said in 2010 during an interview with Harper’s Bazaar.
Among her foundation’s educational programmes is one to educate lawyers in Kenya on how to help women affected by FGM, domestic violence or forced marriage. Waris herself became all too familiar with forced marriage after her father sold her off to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather. Among the celebrities that this former supermodel (whose last job was with the late Richard Avedon) has secured for her cause are Salma Hayek, Stella McCartney and Frida Giannini, creative director at Gucci.