Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for nonmedical reasons, and is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls. The practice also violates their rights to health, security, and physical integrity. It also goes against their right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and their right to life when the procedure results in death. Based on biblical principles, the Seventh-day Adventist Church opposes FGM and adopted a document against this practice in April 2000. Since its opening in 2013, Desert Flower Center at Seventh-day Adventist Waldfriede Hospital in Berlin, Germany, has assisted more than 600 women affected by FGM. —Editors
The project Desert Flower Center Waldfriede (DFC) came into being out of clinical necessity, as many women in Germany also suffer from the health and psychological consequences of FGM. The project was realized in cooperation with the Desert Flower Foundation under the patronage of former model Waris Dirie and her manager, Walter Lutschinger, in December 2011, as it became clear that purely preventive work did not meet the needs of those affected.
Our goal is to offer wholistic medical care to women suffering from the consequences of genital mutilation. This includes not only surgical interventions and reconstructive operations but also psychological and physiotherapeutic help. We also offer a self-help group that meets once a month at Waldfriede Hospital.
Since the opening in September 2013, more than 600 women have sought our medical help. Surgery was necessary for half of them.
A stable solution has also been found in the meantime for the financial settlement of problematic cases. An operation costs around 2,000 to 4,000 euros. For people with statutory health insurance, the costs are covered by health insurance. However, since we also want to treat people who are not insured, we have founded the Förderverein Waldfriede e.V. (Waldfriede Association). The association, financed by donations, supports or assumes the costs in these cases.
Since January 2015 we have been conducting support group meetings once a month. Both women whom we have already treated and those still looking for help come to the meetings. In a protected setting, the women can exchange experiences and learn that they are not alone with their fears and worries. Sometimes affected women talk about their fate, or women who have already undergone reoperation talk about their experiences.
The most important measure in the fight against FGM is widespread education and schooling of children, locally, in their home countries. In general, the public should be sensitized to the issue. Information on FGM should be bundled and further developed on an interdisciplinary basis, and professional competencies should be strengthened. To this end, in 2020, we founded the Berlin FGM Coordination Office. The coordination office aims to link existing services in Berlin and expand them according to need, train professionals in dealing with the issue, and strengthen awareness-raising activities in communities.
They can often talk about their worries and experiences for the first time in their lives.
In the sense of wholistic support, the coordination office offers psychological support and psychosocial group services for those affected, in addition to medical counseling and treatment.
To this end, the coordination center focuses on raising awareness among professionals, and qualifies them for dealing with those affected. A hotline also offers the first point of contact and counseling for affected persons and professionals and enables simple and low-threshold mediation.
As we receive many inquiries about shadowing at the Desert Flower Center, we have been offering an FGM-intensive seminar for colleagues, midwives, and nursing professionals, twice a year since 2018.
As medical coordinator and senior physician of the Desert Flower Center Waldfriede, I am the first person the women get in touch with by phone or e-mail. The fact alone that these often very emotional preliminary talks, and the medical examination, take place in a trusting environment from woman to woman, makes it easier for them to open up to me.
In the counseling session, problems presented are dealt with individually. It is not always about an operation. Some want to talk to our psychotherapist or join our self-help group. Others need a medical certificate for their ongoing asylum procedure. It is important to take time for a detailed anamnesis and examination and respond to the patients’ needs, thus alleviating their fears and addressing their concerns.
As a specialist in our department, I am grateful to be able to be engaged in such a noble endeavor at the Desert Flower Center Waldfriede. The many positive responses encourage me to continue in this highly important work.
In October 2020 we published the first German-language reference book on FGM. We aim to share our experiences with this complex issue and provide assistance for all professions in coping with the multifaceted problems of circumcised women. That month the center also published the first issue of the new Desert Flower magazine. In it we provided a detailed overview of the task, and our projects,and successes, in the worldwide fight against FGM. The magazine is available in German, English, and French.
A major problem at the beginning was intercultural perception and communication. We are delighted to now have two employed counselors/interpreters, in addition to volunteer counselors, who help us and the women we serve to overcome these nonverbal hurdles. With Evelyn Brenda (born in Kenya) and Farhia Mohamed (born in Somalia), we have two therapists on the team who can work psychotherapeutically both in German and in their respective mother tongues.
All the women tell us how valuable this sense of community within the self-help group is for them. There they can often talk about their worries and experiences for the first time in their lives—in a protected setting among like-minded people. At these meetings we are always aware that our work with the women is much more than just a job.
When they come together, there is always a very warm atmosphere. We all call each other by our first names, and especially the women who have already been treated are bursting with self-confidence. In these moments we realize how much this task fulfills us and what the team at the Desert Flower Center Waldfriede achieves. Here women are literally given their lives back.
* Based on an interview by Inter-European Division women’s ministries director Dagmar Dorn and communications director Corrado Cozzi.
Cornelia Strunz is medical director of the Desert Flower Center in Berlin, Germany.