Waris Dirie is the first person to draw the world's attention to FGM(Female Genital Mutilation) as a human rights issue, because of its cruelty. Through her efforts, people around the world have started to view FGM as violence. Her campaign saved millions of girls who were at the risk of the violent practice.
Born into a goat-herding nomad family in Somalia, she underwent female circumcision at the age of 5. In 1997, when her fashion career as a world-class supermodel was at its peak, she revealed her experience with FGM as a representative of all African women who had undergone the procedure and couldn't tell anyone their story.
Female Genital Mutilation, or female circumcision, is a traditional ritual in which the external female genitalia are cut or removed for non-medical reasons and the operated area is sewn together, leaving a tiny hole. Although this ritual has been practiced for over 3,000 years, it doesn't have any medical benefits. This barbaric practice is a crime and against humanity, which often causes infertility, problems with urination, high blood loss, infections and in some cases even death.
According to the World Health Organization(WHO), over 200 million girls and women have been affected by FGM, which is prevalent in more than 30 countries, including parts of Africa and the Middle East. Yearly, about 3.5 million and daily about 9,800 girls and women's lives are threatened by the brutal practice. Also, due to the increase of the immigration rate, countries in Europe, the USA and Asia are being affected by FGM.
Her first book, Desert Flower, published in 1997, contains her life and experiences and has been translated into many languages and sold around the world. A major featured film based on her book, also named Desert Flower, was released in 2009. It has been shown in 56 countries around the world, including by international NGOs such as UNHCR and UNICEF, further raising awareness of FGM.
In 2002, she established the Desert Flower Foundation to raise the FGM issue as a topic of global discussion, instead of restricting it to the frame of a personal issue. The foundation implemented systematic methods and solutions to protect the human rights of victims and those who are at the risk of undergoing FGM.
As a result of her efforts, 15 African Union member countries ratified the Maputo Protocol, which in Article 5 lists FGM as a harmful practice that must be ended. In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution banning the practice and has set a goal to eliminate FGM by 2030.
Al Jazeera, the largest broadcasting company in the Arab world, invited Waris Dirie to be interviewed on journalist Riz Khan's program—the first TV program in the Arab world to raise the issue of FGM. This TV program, which was viewed by 200 million people, brought an opportunity for FGM to be handled publicly as a human rights issue in the Arab world.
Waris Dirie states, "Communities need to be educated in the fact that FGM is not prescribed by any religion and it is not part of a culture." There was a time when her bold statements and actions led to her receiving threats. However, she has continued to lead the campaign to eradicate FGM, even at the risk of her life.
In 2013, the Desert Flower Foundation partnered with the Waldfriede Hospital of Berlin to open the first Desert Flower Center, which provides comprehensive treatments for victims of FGM. Currently, the centers operate in Paris, Berlin, Stockholm and Amsterdam with a medical team of 120 doctors, nurses and staff. The centers provide physiological support, reconstructive surgeries, career training, and educational materials.
The Desert Flower Foundation runs a sponsorship program called "Save a Little Desert Flower," which protects girls in Sierra Leone and Djibouti from FGM by providing funds for education. Also, Waris Dirie started another program called "Education Initiative" to lower the child illiteracy rate. In 2018, she started to built an elementary school in Sierra Leone to raise children's basic literacy.
In addition, she started a pilot project in many corners of Africa, called "Together for African Women," for women's education, career training and guaranteed income. She is also working on a project with fair-trade companies in Ethiopia and Kenya that produce scarves and other fair-trade products to provide employment to thousands.
Waris Dirie states, "My goal is to help the women of Africa. I want to see them get stronger, not weaker, and the practice of FGM simply weakens them physically and emotionally. Since women are the backbone of Africa, and they do most of the work, I like to imagine how much they could accomplish if they weren't butchered as children and left to function maimed for the rest of their lives."
Waris Dirie is calling out passionately that eradicating FGM can empower and expand the rights of women and transform Africa. Because of her achievements, she received the Oscar Romero Award presented by the Catholic Men's Movement in 2007, and she also received the Legion of Honor award from the French government.
*The Sunhak Peace Prize(선학평화상, 鮮鶴平和賞) was founded at the behest of Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon, the wife of the late Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moon, and is given bi-annually in recognition of individuals and organizations that have made enduring contributions to help resolve worldwide suffering, conflict, poverty and threats to the environment, by promoting a comprehensive, future-oriented vision of peace. The laureate is awarded with a medal and plaque, as well as a monetary prize of US 1 million dollars.
Anote Tong/Kiribati: Improved global awareness of the severity of climate change and sought for action by the international community for its solution.
Modadugu Vijay Gupta/India: Pioneered the blue revolution and made innovative contributions to aquaculture development as an alternative solution to the looming food crisis.
Gino Strada/Italy: Fought for the right to medical care for refugees and war victims.
Sakena Yacoobi/Afghanistan: The mother of refugee education who proposed a fundamental solution for refugee resettlement.