July 4, 2018

Adventist Center in Its Sixth Year Helping Victims of Female Genital Mutilation

Louise Schroeder, Inter-European Division News

More than 350 victims of female genital mutilation (FGM) have received medical attention at the Desert Flower Center (DFC) located in the Waldfriede Adventist hospital in Zehlendorf, Berlin, Germany. The center was launched in 2013 with the support of former top model Waris Dirie.

On June 21, 2018, Dirie spoke at the sixth Live Surgery and Symposium, entitled “Innovations in Proctology,” held by Waldfriede hospital with 300 doctors in attendance. “More Desert Flower Centers must be established around the world,” she said. According to United Nations (UN) statistics, more than 250 million women worldwide are affected by this damaging procedure.

Dirie, 53, became widely known through her biography Desert Flower and the film of the same name. In it, the native of Somalia, who herself was a victim of FGM at the age of 5, describes her path of suffering and recovery. Waldfriede, a cooperating hospital of the Desert Flower Foundation launched by Dirie in Vienna in 2002, is the first institution in the world to look after the victims of female genital mutilation wholistically.

Victims in Germany and Switzerland

According to the human rights organization Terre Des Femmes, based in Berlin, about 500,000 girls and women are affected by female genital mutilation and 180,000 are at risk in the European Union. A 2013 UNICEF report says FGM is practiced in 29 countries, primarily in Africa but also in a few Arab and Asian states, as well as within migrant communities in Europe and North America.

In Germany, there are an estimated 25,000 victims of genital mutilation and 2,500 at risk.

The Swiss Federal Office of Public Health estimates that in 2016, 15,000 women and girls living in Switzerland were either affected by FGM or at risk.

Giving Back Quality of Life

The Desert Flower Center is part of the center for intestinal and pelvic floor surgery at Waldfriede hospital. It is run by chief physician Roland Scherer, professor of coloproctology. At the DFC, women with FGM receive medical help and psycho-social care. Scherer and his team at Waldfriede deal with the consequences of FGM, such as chronic pain, scarring, vaginal-intestinal fistulas, vaginal-bladder fistulas, sphincter injuries, and urinary and fecal incontinence.

At the DFC, plastic reconstructive surgery for the reconstruction of the clitoris and the external genitalia is possible, as well as psycho-social care and counseling. “We cannot completely reverse the mutilation, but we can restore their quality of life,” Scherer pointed out. Also, the surgery counteracts risks that threaten women who go through pregnancy and childbirth after FGM.

“All surgeries performed by us are medically based surgeries, so they are covered by health insurance or, if necessary, by the social welfare office in Germany. After all, these are not cosmetic corrections or even cosmetic surgeries,” emphasized cooperation partner Uwe von Fritschen, chief physician of the Department of Plastic and Aesthetic Surgery at HELIOS Hospital Emil von Behring, Berlin. For women who come directly from abroad to the DFC in Berlin and have no health insurance, or whose health insurance does not cover the treatment, Waldfriede hospital covers the costs.

Fighting Victims’ Trauma

DFC medical coordinator and senior physician for surgery Cornelia Strunz reported that most of the women who come for treatment are traumatized. If they desire, women can opt for psycho-social counseling and assistance before, during, or after treatment.

Waldfriede social services instructor Nina Zahn looks after the social interests of patients. Important interlocutors for the women include Evelyn Brenda, originally from Kenya, and Farhia Mohamed, from Somalia. Both come from countries where FGM is practiced. Because of their roots, they understand women’s perspectives. They have also worked as interpreters in the team. “It is important to contact the women after they get treatment at the DFC. I want to know how they are doing, even years later,” Strunz says.

Strunz also shared that since January 2015, the DFC has held a monthly self-help group. “In group discussions with translators and therapists, women exchange experiences and support each other in coping with problems,” she said.

This article is adapted from the original version posted on the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Germany website.