VIENNA, Austria – Young girls born in Europe to immigrant families from Africa are being subjected to ritual genital mutilation (search), and authorities are doing little to discourage it, a leading women's rights activist warned Thursday.
Somalia-born supermodel and best-selling author Waris Dirie (search), who has campaigned to end the disfiguring practice she suffered at age 5 in her homeland, said she estimates one in every three African families living in Europe is secretly carrying out the ritual on their daughters. No official figures exist.
The procedure — illegal in most European countries — is especially prevalent in Germany and the Netherlands, as well as in Austria, where an estimated 8,000 girls born into immigrant families have been affected, Dirie said.
"We don't know who's doing it and where," because there are few initiatives to prevent it or to encourage doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers and others to report suspected cases, Dirie said. An exception is France, where there is strong awareness and education, she said.
"What good is a law if no one is paying attention?" Dirie told reporters in Austria, where she was being honored Thursday by a Roman Catholic men's movement for her efforts to stop the practice.
Islamic religious leaders are telling Europe's Muslim Africans that the prophets recommend the ancient ritual, which involves the removal of the clitoris, often with a dull blade and no anesthesia, Dirie said.
"That is a catastrophe," she said. "Every imam who is not actively against genital mutilation is guilty. Mutilation is not a tradition — it's a crime that must be abolished."
Although women generally perform the procedure, sometimes called female circumcision, men are ultimately responsible because "untrimmed" young women "face great difficulties in African societies in finding a husband," Dirie said.
Between 100 million and 140 million women have undergone genital mutilation worldwide, and 2 million girls are at risk each year, according to the World Health Organization (search), which says the practice can lead to infection, the spread of AIDS and crippling physical, psychological and sexual problems.
The practice has been on the rise not only among immigrants in Europe but also in Australia, Canada and the United States, WHO says.
Petra Bayr, an official with Austria's Socialist Party, said the bloc's women would press the government to consider genital mutilation an "act of violence" and legitimate grounds for women fleeing it to be granted asylum in Austria.
"Women who are threatened with genital mutilation or have already suffered it should not have to wait for months for an open door," added Raimund Loeffelmann, a spokesman for the Catholic men's organization honoring Dirie on Thursday.
Dirie, 39, has spoken out frankly about her own experience as a victim in her native Somalia. The U.N. goodwill ambassador is the author of the best-selling autobiography "Desert Flower," and two sequels, "Desert Dawn" and "Nomad's Daughter."
"I didn't move," Dirie told The Associated Press in a 1996 interview describing the ordeal she endured at age 5. "I just shivered. There was no painkiller, no anesthesia, no nothing."
When her father, Dahire, arranged for her to marry an elderly man in exchange for five camels, she ran away from home. Just 13 years old, the skinny girl walked 500 kilometers (300 miles) across Somalia to the capital, Mogadishu, drinking from camels in the desert to survive.
She moved to Britain, where an uncle served for four years as Somalia's ambassador, and was discovered by a photographer and hired as a model for Revlon, Inc.
Dirie appeared in "The Living Daylights," a 1987 James Bond film. She has modeled in Chanel perfume ads and has appeared on numerous magazine covers.
Dirie, who now lives in Vienna, is this year's recipient of Austria's Romero Prize for her campaign against genital mutilation. President Heinz Fischer was to present the honor at a ceremony in Vienna's museum quarter Thursday evening.
The $13,000 prize is named for Oscar Arnulfo Romero, a Roman Catholic bishop in El Salvador who was slain in 1980.