The Waldfriede Hospital, in cooperation with the Vienna, Austria-based “Desert Flower Foundation”, which was launched in 2002 by Somali model Waris Dirie, opened the Desert Flower Center on September 11, 2013.
Waris Dirie, herself a victim of FGM at age five, is an international activist and established the foundation to raise awareness of the ritual. Her 1997 book “Desert Flower” was made into a movie in 2009.
Waldfriede Hospital is the first and only European hospital to treat the problems of mutilated women in a holistic manner. “Since the opening in September 2013, more than 600 women have sought our medical help,” affirmed Dr. Cornelia Strunz, medical coordinator at Desert Flower Center, who kindly granted us the following interview.
What, do you think, are the most important actions to achieve the goal (zero tolerance) of this day? Apart from the professional help you give, what can we do as individuals to end FGM?
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 sensitised to the issue, information on FGM should be bundled and further developed on an interdisciplinary basis, and professional competences should be strengthened. Thus, in 2020, we founded the "Berlin FGM_C Coordination Office". This is a cooperation of three organisations: the family planning centre—BALANCE, Terre des Femmes, and the Desert Flower Center at the Waldfriede Hospital. The aim of the coordination office is to link the existing services in Berlin and to expand them according to need, to train professionals in dealing with the issue, and to strengthen awareness-raising activities in the communities.
In the sense of holistic support, the coordination office offers psychological support and psychosocial group services for those affected in addition to medical counselling and treatment.
To this end, the coordination centre focuses on raising awareness among professionals and qualifies them for dealing with those affected. A hotline also offers the first point of contact and counselling for affected persons and professionals, and enables simple and low-threshold mediation.
As we receive many enquiries about shadowing at the Desert Flower Centre, we have been offering an FGM intensive seminar for colleagues, midwives, and nursing professionals, twice a year since 2018.
Can you briefly explain what the Desert Flower Center is about?
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 realised in cooperation with the Desert Flower Foundation under the patronage of 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 holistic 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.
What motivates you to work in this sensitive area?
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 the women to open up to me. In the counselling session, the 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 to respond to the needs of the patients, thus alleviating their fears and addressing their concerns.
As a specialist in our department, it was with great gratitude that I started working at the "Desert Flower Centre" Waldfriede. I feel that this specialist work is very honourable. The many positive feedbacks encourage me in our highly important work.
You have been working in the Desert Flower Center since its foundation in 2013. What are the most important developments?
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 2000 to 4000 euros. For people with statutory health insurance, the costs are covered by the 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 support association, which is financed by donations, supports or assumes the costs in these cases.
Since January 2015, we have been offering a support group once a month. Both women who have already been treated by us and those who are 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.
A major problem at the beginning was the intercultural perception and communication. We are very happy to now have two employed counsellors/interpreters, in addition to volunteer counsellors, who enable us and the women to overcome these non-verbal hurdles. With Evelyn Brenda (born in Kenya) and Farhia Mohamed (born in Somalia) we have two therapists in the team who can work psychotherapeutically in German as well as in their respective mother tongues.
All the women tell us how valuable this community in the self-help group is for them because, here, 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 always notice that the work with the women is much more than just a "job".
When the women 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 realise 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.
In April 2016, we were awarded the Louise Schroeder Medal. It is the highest award of the state of Berlin.
Since 1998, the medal has been awarded to a personality or institution that pays outstanding tribute to Louise Schroeder's political and personal legacy and has rendered outstanding services to democracy, peace, social justice, and gender equality.
In October 2020, we published the first German-language reference book on FGM (edited by Dr. Uwe von Fritschen/ Dr. Cornelia Strunz/ Dr. Roland Scherer). Our aim was to share our experiences with this complex issue and to provide assistance for all professions in coping with the multi-faceted problems of circumcised women. As the number of women with female genital mutilation (FGM) is also increasing in Germany as a result of migration and globalisation, many professional groups are confronted with this issue without having received any training so far.
On October 19, 2020, the first issue of the new Desert Flower Magazine was published, which was designed by the Desert Flower Foundation/ Waris Dirie. In the magazine, we provide a detailed overview of the work, and the projects and successes of Waris Dirie and her Desert Flower Foundation in the worldwide fight against the inhumane ritual of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
The Desert Flower MAGAZINE is available in German, English and French.
Link to the German edition:
Link to the English edition:
Link to the French edition:
In addition to our activities in Berlin, we also want to take action against female genital mutilation in the home countries with prevention measures and educational work. Therefore, Waldfriede Hospital supports two girls' schools in Kajiado, Kenya. (1)
Waldfriede Hospital also cooperates with the Gynocare Women's & Fistula Hospital, in Eldoret, Kenya. Here, among other things, women are operated on for urinary and faecal incontinence due to their genital circumcision. The specialist in this surgical technique is Dr. Hillary Mabeya.
Interview by Dagmar Dorn, Women’s Ministries Director, and Corrado Cozzi, Communications Director of the Inter-European Region of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.