Her name means „desert flower” in Somali. It was probably predestined to her, because in spite of her fragility, she resisted to tribulations that are unimaginable for most of us. For the first time in Romania and exclusively for LaRevista.ro, Waris Dirie talks about the experiences that have marked her life, about her activity at her Desert Flower Foundation and about her daily joys.
When she was about five years old, she was the victim of a horrible crime, genital mutilation, which is still practiced today on little girls in Africa and other countries. At 13, she fled the Somali desert, because her father wanted to force her to marry a man who was four times her age. After many adventures, she arrived in London, where her beauty was discovered by a photographer who opened her way to fame. She became a renowned topmodel and she worked with other famous people, like Naomi Campbell, for all the famous designers. In 1997 she retired from the catwalk and started a campaign against female genital mutilation, as a Special Ambassador for the United Nations Organisation. Her first book, Desert Flower, where she told the story of her life – of the little girl who ran barefoot from the desert and later became a fashion star in Chanel or Ralph Lauren shows – was made into a very successful film. Due to her popularity, Waris managed to raise awareness on the crime of which millions of little girls are victims. Today, she says her fight isn’t over yet and that she will not end her campaign until female genital mutilation will be completely eliminated. Also, in a tender confession about her age, she says she regards every day as her birthday. I guess anyone who has been through so much and is still standing would say the same.
There are 16 years since you quit modelling and started your fight for women’s rights. Don’t you miss the fashion world sometimes?
I still do modelling on and off, but only for a good purpose, to support my foundation. I did a H&M campaign with Liya Kebede, the supermodel who plays my role in the film (e.n. Desert Flower). I did a campaign with MEY Germany to support women in Africa and I did a lot of editorials for international magazines, but just in connection with my foundation.
Regarding you fight against female genital mutilation (FGM), it’s been so much time since you’re publicly speaking about your own experience… Doesn’t it hurt too much, after a while? Aren’t you tired to tell your story to the world?
Sometimes I am tired and YES, it still hurts! I still suffer from psychological and physical pain. And it is still not easy for me to talk about FGM, but when I lie in bed at night I hear all those millions of girls screaming and crying of pain, and I know that I cannot let them down. The fight has to continue!
What was the biggest change you’ve made until now and what was your biggest dissapointment?
When I started to campaign against FGM, most of the people had no idea that this cruel crime on children exists. Now the world knows about that and nobody has an excuse that they had no clue about this practice. Beneath my Desert Flower Foundation I have supported a lot of initiatives in Africa, Europe and the US. But it is still not enough, because 150 million women are affected by FGM and millions are threatened to become victims of FGM.
My biggest disappointment are politicians. They promise everything, but do nothing. They are all the same. They just have to do the job they are getting paid for. To protect children, girls and women is every politician’s duty. But they just talk instead of taking actions. And most of them are really useless, even though they have the power to change the world into a better place. It is sad.
FGM still has no international lobby. Hollywood stars, celebrities, politicians are not taking care of the campaign. I met many of them, they congratulate me about my fight and that is it. Maybe they have a problem to talk about the vagina.
Why did your collaboration with the United Nations not last longer?
I worked for them for seven years. They appointed me as a Special Ambassador in the fight against FGM, but they refused to condemn FGM with a UN resolution. Too many countries blocked the resolution and the funds to educate people or to treat victims are ridiculously small. They appointed me in 1996 as a UN Special Ambassador. I founded my own foundation in 2002, because I knew I had to do more than just being a UN ambassador. A UN resolution to ban FGM worldwide was finally urged in December 2012. It took them 16 years to just urge the resolution!!!
Is it more effective to work through your own foundation? Who are the people who most support you in your goal?
Absolutely. We approach people through my books which have been published in 51 languages, the film Desert Flower that has been released in 34 countries and is has been shown in many African countries, our website visited by 1.2 million people per year, and on Facebook with 3 million visitors, a Desert Flower YouTube channel and Twitter. A lot of young people in Africa have access to the Internet via Internet cafes and can visit our website, and a lot of students become encouraged to do presentations in schools. We support them with Power Point presentations and information material. More than 12,000 schools ordered information material since 2002. And FGM victims, girls threatened by FGM and supporters can write directly to the Desert Flower Foundation. Most of our supporters are women, students and sometimes men.
How did you start your collaboration with the PPR Corporate Foundation for Women’s Dignity and Rights, founded by Mr. François-Henri Pinault?
François-Henri Pinault (e.n. French businessman, Salma Hayek’s husband) informed me in 2008 about his plan to found the PPR Foundation, which is now renamed in Kering Foundation – Stop Violence. Improve Women’s Lives. I agreed to become a founding member. The Kering Foundation supports many projects for girls and women and contributed to promote the film Desert Flower and to raise awareness on FGM.
François-Henri Pinault is a man with a strong commitment to support girls and women’s rights. Unfortunately, not many celebrities are getting involved in the fight against FGM.
Do you have any recent statistics about how many girls are circumcised daily in the world?
There are just a few statistics saying that 150 million women are affected by FGM, 30 million girls are threatened by FGM in Africa and more than 500, 000 already in Europe due to immigration.
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