LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Supermodel turned campaigner against female genital mutilation Waris Dirie said on Thursday she was optimistic that FGM could be eradicated in her lifetime, branding the tradition "a cruel and perfidious war on little girls."
"FGM breaches all human rights and has no place in any 21st century society," said Dirie, who underwent FGM in Somalia when she was 5 years old and whose sister bled to death after being cut.
An estimated 140 million women and girls worldwide have undergone FGM which involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia. In its most extreme form the vaginal opening is also sewn closed.
Dirie said her Desert Flower Foundation aimed to save 1 million girls across Africa from the "barbaric" ritual in the next few years through a sponsorship project which provides food, kerosene and school fees to families who pledge not to cut their daughters.
The former model sponsors the family of the girl from Djibouti who played the young Dirie in the 2009 film based on her best-selling autobiography "Desert Flower."
Speaking after receiving a human rights award at the House of Lords in London, Dirie welcomed the growing global momentum to stamp out FGM, a procedure which can cause lifelong physical and psychological problems.
"Twenty years ago when I started to speak, there was silence. There was nobody doing or saying (anything). I just thought . . . I had nothing to lose.
"I got a lot of threats. I was pushed to the side. It was very hard. But now so many people are fighting this that my time wasn't wasted," she said.
Dirie fled Somalia when she was 13, after being forced to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather.
She ended up in Britain where she catapulted to fame after being discovered by a top fashion photographer.
Dirie said the modeling world had turned against her when she started speaking out about FGM in the early 1990s. But she said she did not care as modeling was never a vocation.
She said her dream now was to see FGM end in her lifetime. "I'm very much optimistic (we can end it). If we all come together then we can and we will and we should," she added.
British government minister Lynne Featherstone, who presented Dirie with the Liberal International Prize for Freedom - an annual award made by the international federation for liberal political parties - said she hoped FGM would become as outdated as foot-binding.
"I want to praise Waris and all those brave survivors who have spoken out and broken the silence. Together we will get there, we will end FGM in our lifetime," said Featherstone, who has spearheaded British efforts to end FGM.
FGM is practiced by communities across a swathe of African countries as well as pockets of Asia and the Middle East.
Families see FGM as a way of preserving a girl's purity and a gateway to marriage. In many communities uncut girls are ostracized.
Dirie admitted it was very hard to persuade a family who thought they were acting in their daughter's best interests that FGM was wrong.
But she revealed she had finally changed her mother's mind. "If I can persuade my mother I can convince anyone!" she said.