“I just pray that one day no woman will have to experience this pain. It will become a thing of the past. People will say “Did you hear, female genital mutilation has been outlawed in Somalia?” Then the next country, and the next, and so on, until the world is safe for all women. What a happy day that will be, and that’s what I’m working toward. In’shallah, if God is willing, it will happen. ”

Waris Dirie, Desert Flower

UN’s International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) was marked on February 6, 2016. Two years ago, the Chief Executive of Plan UK emphasised the urgency of open and public debate on FGM for the practice to become an ‘old story’.

Can fiction change the narrative?

First published in 1998, Desert Flower is the autobiographical novel of Waris Dirie, who tells her extraordinary story of running across the Somali desert, with nothing in hand, fleeing from a forced marriage and an oppressive life. The novel also highlights how Dirie underwent the dangerous practice of FGM when she was just five years old. Today, Somali-born Dirie is an internationally renowned fashion model and a human rights ambassador who continues to speak up against the practice. Yet, her story is significant given that Somalia is among the countries with the highest prevalence of FGM among girls and women between 15 and 49 years.

For long, FGM has been considered as barbaric, wrong, and life-threatening. The United Nations has advocated the abandonment FGM. Yet, some communities regard such practices as valid and carrying meaning.

Therefore, who has the right to speak on FGM?

In public debate on the issue, there is an urgent need to engage the affected communities themselves, including community leaders, elders, men and women, whose lives have, for generations, being impacted by this practice. And such practices no longer happen primarily in Africa, Middle East or Asia. With waves of migrants, they have also been brought into the Western world.

There is also a need for personal narratives. Fiction helps fill this void. Dirie speaks of FGM from the perspective of a survivor. She shows resilience and honesty. Desert Flower is an emotionally difficult read, yet, one that is urgent. Nearly two decades on since its publication, over 3 million girls are estimated to undergo FGM every year, with most girls cut before they are 15, which seriously puts their health and reproductive rights at risks.

There is still a long way to go to FGM an ‘old story’.