You may well have heard of her already, but if not I would like to tell you about an amazing woman called Waris Dirie ... and believe me, when I say amazing, I am not using the superlative flippantly. She is more than amazing.
Some years ago I read a book called Desert Flower. It moved me to tears – it affected me deeply, as a woman, as a mother and as a human being. I do not believe anyone could not be moved by this book – if you have read it I know you will understand what I mean.
The book was written by a remarkable woman called Waris Dirie, a Somalian, born into a nomadic clan in 1965. At a young age she was subjected to the atrocious, invasive procedure known as FGM (female genital mutilation), which many young girls still endure. To make matters worse, at the age of just 13, she fled from her family to escape an arranged marriage to a 60 year old man she had never met. After crossing the desert and staying with various distant relatives, she eventually found her way to London, where she lived and worked with some wealthy relatives, but was in fact a virtual prisoner.
In a twist of fate, Waris was spotted by celebrated photographer Terence Donovan, who secured her a contract for the cover of the 1987 Pirelli calendar. From there, her modeling career rocketed and she worked for Chanel and Levis, appeared on the London, Paris, Milan and New York runways and on the cover of Vogue.
In 1997, in a shocking interview with Marie Claire magazine (which received worldwide media coverage), Waris spoke for the first time about the FGM she had undergone as a child. From then on, Waris has campaigned vigorously for the abolition of FGM, writing her telling autobiography and becoming a UN ambassador.
What it FGM?
It is defined by the World Health Organisation as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia”.
It is estimated that 3 million girls are subjected to this barbaric practice every year. Although the prevalence rates in some African countries can be as high as 98%, it is no longer restricted to African countries, and with population movement is increasingly being practiced in Europe, Australia, New Zealand the US and Canada. As many as 6500 girls are now estimated to be at risk of FGM in the UK!
The procedure is traditionally carried out by an older woman with no medical training. Anaesthetics and antiseptic are not generally used and the cutting is usually carried out using basic tools such as knives, scissors, pieces of glass and razor blades. Afterwards the legs are bound together and the shocked victim left to 'heal'. In poorer countries many die from blood loss or severe infection at this stage.
The short term health implications include severe pain, shock, infection, urine retention (the remaining skin is stitched together leaving a minute opening) and fatal haemorrhaging. In the long term there can be extensive internal damage, agonising periods, incontinence and infertility (resulting in abandonment by any future husband) and severe complications in childbirth. There are many more which I feel are too detailed and shocking for this post.
The justifications for practising FGM are many and generally relate to customs and traditions that dictate the compliance of women. Many women believe that FGM is necessary in order to be accepted by their community and they are unaware that it is not practiced in most of the world.