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Monday, August 8, 2011

Interview with Waris Dirie in Indian “Society Magazine”

August 6, 2011
Desert Flower Foundation

Waris Dirie was interviewed by the largest Indian Magazine, “Society Magazine” earlier this month. Here’s an excerpt from the interview. You can download a scan of the entire article here.

They say 150 million women worldwide have undergone FGM. Is this number growing?

Any number is only an estimation, since it is impossible to “measure” how many women and girls are affected by FGM. We can see that some communities are successfully moving away from this cruel practice, while others continue to mutilate their daughters despite changes in laws in many countries worldwide. In addition to the situation in the countries of origin such as many African countries and countries like Indonesia, there is the problem of “imported FGM” in Europe, North America and Australia, where immigrant communities continue practicing FGM, some even while the situation in their countries of origin is improving.

What are the psychological impacts of FGM, since its effects are long lasting?

Both the physical and the psychological consequences of FGM affect its victim for all her life. The procedure itself is traumatizing and the psychological effects can be manifold. You suffer from depression, flashbacks and nightmares for the rest of your life. You are on high risk when giving birth to a child and you suffer from chronicle pain and permanent inflammations.

Is the practice limited to a certain geographical area or is it a cultural phenomenon?

FGM occurs almost everywhere in the world nowadays due to international migration. The main geographical regions affected are Africa, especially East and West Africa, with a very high prevalence rate of up to 95% and some countries in Asia, for example Indonesia, Malaysia or Kurdistan (Northern Iraq). The practice is deeply rooted in these societies, but it would be wrong to call it a “cultural” practice. Mutilating a child is not culture, it is a crime on innocent girls and it seeks justice. The sole purpose is limiting the possibilities and the freedom of women in these societies.

What are the ways to curb this practice?

There are many factors that have to be considered in order to successfully curb the practice of female genital mutilation.

First of all, there is a huge need for education. The people who practice this have to know what they are doing to their children, both in terms of their physical and their mental health. Then there is the economic aspect: selling one’s daughter for marriage remains a widespread practice in many societies that practice FGM, and the mutilation is what makes a girl ready for marriage. (People believe a mutilated woman will be faithful, because sex is painful.)

This is why I believe the economic aspect is extremely important for a successful campaign against FGM.

Please tell us about Desert Flower Foundation’s work on this issue and their future projects.

Besides educational campaigns all over the world, the Desert Flower Foundation is working on improving the financial situation of women in Africa.

I am convinced that no mother would sell her own child if she truly had a choice. Having a job and earning a reliable income is what gives these women the choice NOT to mutilate their daughters. My foundation is working on several projects that create qualified jobs for women in Africa.

Tell us something about your personal fight against FGM.

My work is very personal by definition, since I am myself a victim of FGM. Speaking out against this practice is something I have to do and I will not stop addressing this topic until not one child on this planet will become a victim of FGM.

I raise awareness on the issue through my books, the film “Desert Flower”, the information provided on the Desert Flower Foundation’s website, my blog and my Facebook Page and Twitter.

I receive thousands of Emails from people seeking information, from the media, but also from victims asking for help and advice. I spread knowledge on FGM through interviews for newspapers, Magazines, big TV and radio stations, and I speak at international conferences, universities and schools.

Have campaigning against FGM been always something that you have pictured doing?

From the day of my mutilation on, I knew that one day I would fight against this crime. Even though I was a very young child, only 5 years old, I knew immediately that what had happened to me was wrong. That day, I decided that I would fight against it. I did not know what “campaigning” was or how I would do it, but I knew that I would help save future generations of girls from this crime. When I became successful as a model, I knew that my chance to be heard had come and I took it.

What projects are you presently involved in?

I am involved in all of the projects of my foundation that I described above. I am also involved in a project that seeks to find an international logo for human rights, initiated by the German Foreign Office. On , people can submit their own designs for a logo for human rights and I am a board member of the PPR Foundation with my friend Salma Hayek and her husband Francois Pinault. We support projects for women worldwide.

How has life been different for you from being a supermodel and UN Ambassador?

My success as a model has of course changed my life, but it did not change me as a person. It gave me a lot of possibilities and chances, which I am very thankful for. Being a UN Ambassador helped to raise awareness on FGM, but when it comes to actions, I rather rely on myself than on a huge organization such as the UN, which is impacted by so many political interests.

Has there been a mentor/a helping hand/inspiration with your fight with this social evil?

The countless girls all over Africa and the world that I want to see healthy and happy are my inspiration and my great team of the Desert Flower Foundation.

Other than being a UN ambassador, what defines Waris Dirie? Tell us about your other passions in life.

My children are my biggest passion. I love nature and music. Spending time with my family in the nature is happiness to me.

Was adapting the book into a movie always something you had in mind?

The idea had been there for many years, but things never quite came together. I was skeptical in the beginning, but this project convinced me. I liked the fact that the movie was directed by a woman, Sherry Horman, and I knew that the producer, Peter Herrmann, had a big knowledge about Africa, since he won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film for his production, “Nowhere in Africa”, in 2003.

Why was Liya Kebede chosen to play as you in the movie?

Sherry sent me a DVD with several women who auditioned for a role. I was on holiday with my oldest son Aleeke. While watching a scene with Liya Kebede, he came in and asked “Is that you in the video, mum?”. That’s how I realized the similarities between us.

How has the whole experience of bringing out the movie ‘Desert Flower’ been?

Very emotional. It was extremely difficult to see the movie for the first time, especially the scenes from my childhood. They still give me goose bumps every time I see the movie.

I knew that the movie would be a great chance to reach even more people than through my books and campaigns alone. And it worked; the movie generated a lot of media attention for the issue of FGM since it has been shown in 37 countries already. By the way, the movie is not out in India yet and I would love to come to India to present the movie, if somebody would invite me. I heard and read so much about your country, but I have never been there.

To see the work appreciated must be fulfilling, what was the best compliment you have received so far?

The most emotional screening of the movie for me personally was in Ethiopia, when I was able to bring my whole family from Somalia to the premiere in Addis Ababa. It meant a lot to me that my mother congratulated me for the movie.