The Desert Flower Foundation: An Interview with Waris Dirie

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She is the woman who has brought to the world stage the fight against female genital mutilation, in short known as FGM. In her interview with the O Diaries, the author and model Waris Dirie speaks on her work with her organization, the Desert Flower Foundation.

Waris, you founded the Desert Flower Foundation in 2002 – why? 

In 1997 the then Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan, named me as a UN Special Ambassador in the fight against FGM. However, I soon had the feeling that the UN only really needed a face for this topic, and were not interested in actually informative work. For that reason I established the Desert Flower Foundation with my team. Nowadays, our organization works successfully in 11 countries and is famous throughout the world.

What exactly does the Desert Flower Foundation do? Could you please give us a few projects as examples?

Our first big project ran from 2002 to 2004 and took on undercover research in African communities throughout Europe. We were able to prove that FGM is widespread in Europe.

I used this research in my book, “Desert Children” and was able to publish the “Desert Flower Manifesto 2005,” which outlined our demands to politicians and political authorities, as well as doctors and teachers for the first time. The European Union then set FGM on its agenda for the first time and I presented my research to the EU Council of Ministers. Many European states then enacted legislation against FGM and I was invited by many governments to speak on this topic in front of their parliaments.

With the 2009 release of the feature film, “Desert Flower” in 54 countries, we started the awareness campaign “Stop FGM Now,” which was the biggest campaign against FGM up until that point, and we even won the 2010 Best NGO Social Media Award from the German government.

In Africa, we are currently financially supporting over 1000 families who are committed by contract to keep their daughters safe from FGM and send them to school. At the same time we are also building our first Desert Flower School. Only through education can FGM in Africa be defeated permanently. 

The number of girls and women affected by FGM is now around 200 million worldwide. Why is this practice still carried out despite decades of NGO intervention?

That is not completely correct. Long-term studies, which were recently published in the British Medical Journal, show us that the prevalence of FGM across Africa with girls under 14 has decreased massively in the past 20 years. Just in East Africa, the region I am from, the rate of occurrence has already dropped from 71.4% to only 8%.

This lines up with my own experiences during my many trips to Africa. Young mothers especially are not letting their daughters be cut anymore.

Can the fight ever be won?

Of course the fight against FGM will be won and I will live to see it myself.

You have written that it is stressful to be repeatedly asked in interviews to speak on a sexlife after genital mutilation. Have you ever regretted going public with your story?

Yes, it is very stressful and not really easy for me. But as young girl in the desert after the unspeakably cruel mutilation of my vagina, I swore to myself that if I survived, I would one day fight back and never give up until the madness came to an end.

What can anyone do as an individual? Especially as a woman?

Every person can help by donating to my organization the Desert Flower Foundation and its projects in Africa. You can even sponsor a child or pledge support to the construction of the Desert Flower School.

What are your plans and dreams for the future?

I am working as a model again and I have even just shot a fashion campaign with the famous British photographer Rankin in London.

With Rankin, I also produced a video for my new “End FGM” campaign, which will go online on March 7 and will aim to collect 10 million signatures, so that we can shake some action out of big organizations like the UN. They definitely do not do enough to stop FGM.

Coco De Mer x Waris from RankinFilm on Vimeo.

Womanizer™ supports your work with the Desert Flower Foundation. How beneficial is the cooperation between the brand and your organization?

In the future I aim to do more work with the Desert Flower Foundation on sexual education in African schools, because it doesn’t take place anywhere in Africa at the moment. One who is sexually informed would certainly never let their daughters be cut. With financial support from Womanizer, I can take the first steps in the right direction.

Waris Diri Desert Flower Foundation

Thank you for the interview, Waris!


All Photos by Desert Flower Foundation

Autorin: Friederike Hintze

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