RHO: Reproductive Health Outlook

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Special Profile

One Woman's Story: A Supermodel's Remarkable Battle Against Female Genital Mutilation

Somalian supermodel Waris Dirie has achieved international fame, wealth, and a glamorous lifestyle. Her journey to success, however, has been a long road that began many years ago.

At age five, without any anesthesia, Waris was genitally mutilated. Her mother sadly blindfolded her and held her down, and Waris was soon overwhelmed by fear and the pain of the procedure. The little girl passed out, waking to find that most of her genitals had been removed, the wounds stitched up with thorns, and her blood was everywhere.

Many years later, as a international celebrity, Waris guarded her secret -- and the physical problems that came with it -- with shame and fear. But n the late 1990s, Waris wrote Desert Flower, a memoir of her life's experiences, and began telling the world her story. She now is a United Nation's Special Ambassador, and candidly talks about her experiences in an effort to save other girls and women from female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice that affects more than 130 million women today.

A Childhood in Somalia

Waris was born to a tribe of nomadic herdsmen in the Somalian desert. She happily remembers life as a young child, playing in the desert and seeing giraffes, zebras, and other animals. But when Waris was five, she was forced, as was tradition, to undergo FGM. Afterward, as the years went by, the heavy workload of the African woman began to wear her down.

At age 13 and with her mother's consent, Waris ran away rather than agree to an arranged marriage to a 60-year-old man she didn't know. After a harrowing journey through the desert, she reached Mogadishu and located her aunt and uncle. They ultimately moved to London, where her uncle was to serve as the Somalian ambassador. Even though she knew nothing about London, Waris convinced her aunt and uncle to take her with them to work as their maid.

New Beginnings

London was completely foreign to Waris. She was busy working for 15 hour days, with little time off. When the family was ready to return to Mogadishu, Waris begged her uncle to leave her behind -- and he did.

At the age of 16, Waris made a life for herself while saving money for her dream: to buy her mother a house. She soon made contact with a photographer and began a successful modeling and television career.

International Fame

Despite her international success as a model, Waris suffered. Every month her menstrual periods were extremely painful; the circumciser had left her only a tiny hole for urine or menstrual fluid to pass out of. After many attempts, Waris finally found a doctor in whom she could confide. A year later, she underwent plastic surgery that relieved much of the pain and discomfort that resulted from the FGM.

A Newfound Mission

Waris has now reconciled with her family in Somalia. She also married and gave birth to a child in 1997. Her experiences as a girl and woman prompted her to "speak out for the little girl with no voice."

Waris speaks out about the pain of FGM as well as its lifelong effects. Even after her operation to relieve those problems, Waris describes ongoing issues: "Besides the health problems that I still struggle with, I will never know the pleasures of sex." Yet Waris also feels lucky to have survived such the dangerous operation, performed with only a broken razor blade.

Since 1997, Waris has been working with the United Nations and speaking out against FGM. She feels optimistic that the practice will end.� Instead of anger, Waris focuses on her beliefs and goals. She believes that we won't make much progress simply by telling people in other countries what to do. Instead, we must support Africans in their efforts to eradicate the procedure in a culturally appropriate way, at the same time making sure FGM does not occur in developed countries, perpetuated by immigrant families.

Sources:

Finnerty, A. Questions for Waris Dirie: the body politic.The New York Times Magazine pp. 22 (May 9, 1999).

Waris, D. and Miller, C. Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad. New York: William Morrow & Company (1998).

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