How to Stop Female Genital Mutilation

By Mortimer, Maggie | Herizons, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview
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How to Stop Female Genital Mutilation

Mortimer, Maggie, Herizons

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a widely practised procedure that involves the removal of all or most of the clitoris (clitoridectomy), all or part of the labia minora (excision) or both (infibulation). While international efforts are underway to stop the practice, FGM still flourishes, killing many young girls and maiming millions more.

Waris Dirie, who fled Somalia at 13 and later became a model in London, is the UN special ambassador for the elimination of female genital mutilation. She is also head of the Waris Dirie Foundation, an international organization dedicated to eradicating FGM. She has wntten a book-her third-Desert Children (Virago Books) about the movement to end FGM.

HERIZONS: In a 1988 Barbara Walters interview for Marie Claire magazine, you recounted your experience of female genital mutilation in public for the first time. Was it the initial public feedback after this personal disclosure that led to a larger social activism and your eventual appointment as UN special ambassador for the elimination of female genital mutilation in 1997?

WARIS DIRIE: I didn't expect the reaction on that interview to be so overwhelming. It really frightened me, because I didn't know where it would lead me. After the interview, my mutilation had become a public matter and I didn't know if I should be proud of being the first woman talking about that, because I wasn't sure if this could save some girls from undergoing FGM or notnot because I was a successful model in those days-and from that day on I was often reduced to being a victim of barbaric traditions. But, after I thought about it for awhile, the idea of saving some girls from being mutilated had a major impact on me and I took that possibility as a great challenge in my life.

How has your strategy evolved/diverged in theyears since?

WARIS DIRIE: When I started to fight against FGM, I was sure that the international solidarity would help me to erase that torture within a couple of years. I was young at that time, so I didn't expect that it would maybe take my whole life or even longer until it is eliminated. I was depressed sometimes when I realized that, but now I know that we already saved some girls and I'm satisfied about every single girl that is not affected by FGM due to our work.

The practice of FGM outside the social customs of African, Arab and Asian countries continues to migrate with the population. Often, daughters are sent back to their country of origin, and it is performed in the girl's new homeland.

Here in Canada, FGM is defined as aggravated assault under section 368 of the Criminal Code. In other countries, legislation is similar, yet FGM still happens. With this in mind, what do you think are the most effective preventative measures?

WARIS DIRIE: Laws are important. But they can only be effective if the people know about the particular laws. And we also need more specific laws, which include the fact that girls are sent abroad to become mutilated. I'm deeply convinced that information and education are our strongest weapons to fight FGM. Therefore, my foundation works with opinion leaders, journalists and politicians, because they are the ones who inform others. During my research for Desert Children, I was really shocked about the lack of information among medical and social workers who are in direct contact with affected women. If they don't know how to deal with the topic, who should know? We also need more studies which deal with the psychological effects of FGM to help women to overcome their traumatic wounds.

Do you feel that there is one model that can be used in places where FGM is indigenous, as well as in countries in Europe or North America where the practice has migrated?

WARIS DIRIE: We need a worldwide campaign against FGM which includes legislative measures, information and education. The religious leaders could play an enormous role in that fight. With five words-"It is against our religion"-they could help to erase FGM for real!

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