Thursday, November 5, 2009

Human Rights Defenders -- Waris Dirie

Waris Dirie was born in Gaalkacyo, Somalia in 1965. In 1978, aged thirteen, she left Somalia to escape an arranged marriage to a much older man and went to England where she lived with and worked for her relatives. Later Waris found work at a local McDonald's in an attempt to make ends meet after a falling out with her hosts.

Her fortunes changed when she was discovered by photographer Terence Donovan, who helped secure for her the cover of the 1987 Pirelli calendar. Following this her modeling career took off and Waris worked for international designers such as Chanel, Levi's, L'Oréal and Revlon.

In 1987, Waris played a minor role in the James Bond movie The Living Daylights. She also appeared on the runways of London, Milan, Paris and New York City, and in fashion magazines such as Elle, Glamour and Vogue. This was followed in 1995 by a BBC documentary entitled A Nomad in New York about her modeling career.

In 1997, at the height of her modeling career, Waris spoke out for the first time about the female genital mutilation (FGM) that she had undergone as a child. The interview subsequently received worldwide media coverage. That same year, Waris became a UN ambassador for the abolition of FGM.

In 1998, Waris authored her first book, Desert Flower, an autobiography which went on to become an international bestseller. She later released other successful books including Desert Dawn, Letter to My Mother, and Desert Children, the latter of which was launched in tandem with a European campaign against FGM.

It was in 1997 that Waris abandoned her modeling career to focus on her work against female circumcision. In 2002, she founded the Waris Dirie Foundation in Vienna, Austria, an organization aimed at raising awareness regarding the dangers surrounding FGM. Waris followed that in January 2009 with the establishment of the PPR Foundation for Women’s Dignity and Rights’, an organization she founded along with French tycoon François-Henri Pinault (CEO of PPR) and his wife, Hollywood actress Salma Hayek. Waris has also started the Desert Dawn Foundation, which raises money for schools and clinics in her Somalia.

Waris has received many prizes and awards for her tireless humanitarian work, particularly in raising awareness of the dangers of FGM. In March 2005, Waris acquired Austrian citizenship.

(Additional text by Stewart Sloan)

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