Hadi Mizban / AP, file
Women grieve after a deadly bomb attack during a funeral procession in Baghdad, Iraq, on Oct. 21.
BAGHDAD -- One year after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, then-President George W. Bush told a gathering at the White House: "Every woman in Iraq is better off because the rape rooms and torture chambers of Saddam Hussein are forever closed."
A decade on, that statement rings hollow for many Iraqi women.
Although few miss Saddam's iron-fisted rule or the wars and sanctions he brought upon Iraq, women have been disproportionately affected by the violence that has blighted the lives of almost all Iraqis.
This week marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. ITV's John Irvine in Baghdad assesses a country that remains gripped by the violence of its sectarian divide.
Domestic abuse and prostitution have increased, illiteracy has soared and thousands of women have been left widowed and vulnerable. Many women also rue the political leaders that came to power after Saddam was overthrown and the growing social conservatism that has diminished their role in public life.
Once at the vanguard of women's rights in the region, Iraq ranked 21st out of 22 Arab states in a poll of 336 gender experts released on Tuesday by Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The survey, conducted in August and September, asked questions about violence against women, reproductive rights, treatment of women within the family, their integration into society and attitudes towards a woman's role in politics and the economy.
Ibtisam, 40, was injured by an iron bar as she fled shelling in the U.S.-led invasion and was forced to have her uterus surgically removed. During the sectarian carnage that followed, a Shi'ite militia kidnapped her husband and killed him.
"If the 2003 war had not taken place... at least my husband would be still alive and I would not live in such humiliating circumstances," said Ibtisam, who now works on date farms near her home in eastern Baghdad to provide for her two young daughters.
Seated in the living room of her home in Baghdad, Sana Majeed, mother of two, reminisced about the "golden times" during the 1970s, when she went to parties, galleries and restaurants, and was free to dress as she pleased.
Jacob Silberberg / AP, file
A U.S. Army soldier stands guard while women cry after soldiers kicked through their front gate in Baghdad, Iraq, on April 6, 2006.
The reality of the new Iraq struck her in 2005, when she got out of a taxi and was accosted by a group of men in black who chastised her for wearing inappropriate clothing and told her to go home and cover her hair.
"Islamist parties started to control Iraq and that was the worst nightmare Iraqi women have ever faced," said Majeed, who now wears a black abaya and head scarf. "Religious parties and militia have stolen free life from Iraqi women."
The first piece of legislation Iraq's new leaders sought to change was the personal status law, which enshrines women's rights regarding marriage, inheritance, polygamy and child custody, and has often been held up as the most "progressive" in the Middle East.
Although that first attempt failed, efforts to bring the law in line with Islamic dictates and put family affairs in the hands of religious authorities still continue.
Nadje Al-Ali, a professor of gender studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said women were often used symbolically to reject the previous political order.
"There has been this increase towards greater social conservatism where women are concerned," said Al-Ali, who co-authored the book "What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq".
"I think one has to understand that in a context of reacting against the previous regime and also reacting against Western imperialism. Overall, it has been devastating."
John Moore / AP, file
Mothers cradle their children and watch as nine-month-old Akram Arif dies of gastroenteritis across the room in the Saddam Children's Hospital in Baghdad on Sept. 17, 1996. Iraqi hospitals had few medicines due to U.N. sanctions at the time.
The erosion of women's status in fact began before 2003, when the international community imposed punitive sanctions on Iraq in response to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
With the economy crippled, the government was no longer able to afford services such as child care and maternity leave that had enabled women to enter the workforce as part of Saddam's drive to industrialize Iraq.
"After Saddam was toppled, I had a feeling the good old days would return," said Majeed. "Saddam was gone, the blockade will be lifted, and that gave me a big hope to be a free woman again."
It was a hope shared by many women after the invasion. Sidelined from politics under Saddam, women successfully lobbied for a quarter of seats in parliament to be set aside for them.
But the quota has not translated into meaningful participation, according to several women lawmakers, who said most female MPs did little more than rubber stamp the decisions of their party leaders, all of whom are men.
"Women are not effective in political or government decision-making processes despite the wide participation of women in the political life after 2003," said lawmaker Alia Nussaif Jassim.
In the first government formed after the invasion, women held six cabinet posts, but the number has now fallen to one: the minister for women's affairs, a largely ceremonial department with a meager budget and few employees.
One year after the U.S. military pullout, Iraq teeters between statehood and failure. NBC News' Jim Maceda reports.
"Believe me, if Iraqi culture, tradition and mentality would accept a man to have this post, the men would not even give that to a woman," said lawmaker Safia al-Souhail, one of 21 women who won enough votes to enter parliament without the quota.
Souhail lamented that women were also denied a single seat on key parliamentary committees such as security and defense, and reconciliation.
Within the parliament, women's efforts to cooperate across the political spectrum have been stymied by disputes between Shiite Muslim, Sunni and ethnic Kurdish factions that have all but paralyzed the Iraqi political process.
"This term, women were not able really to work together," Souhail said. "This fight between political parties and blocs and the division reflects on the women MPs as well."
The invasion has been kinder to women living in Iraq's Kurdish north, which bore the brunt of Saddam's authoritarian rule, but is now prospering.
The autonomous region has largely managed to insulate itself from the violent instability that afflicts the rest of the country and has even become a refuge for many Arab Iraqi men and women alike.
The region's government won praise in 2011 for passing a law that criminalized domestic violence, honor killings and female genital mutilation, but activists and women's rights groups say there is still work to be done.
Back in Baghdad, Majeed said women must not give up.
"Women in Iraq must not quit trying to reclaim their freedom," said Majeed. "I think we should keep our voice loud, if not for ourselves, for the sake of our daughters."
This story was originally published on Tue Nov 12, 2013 7:25 AM ESTCopyright 2013 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.
SANAA, Yemen -- Yemeni authorities are investigating the death of an eight-year-old girl from internal bleeding on her wedding night and will prosecute those responsible, the government said on Friday, a case that has rekindled international outrage over child brides.
Yemeni rights campaigner Arwa Othman said earlier this week that the girl, identified as Rawan, died after intercourse that ruptured her uterus following her wedding to a man five times her age. Residents in the town of Meedi in Hajjah province in northwestern Yemen confirmed the incident.
Othman said no action had been taken against the man.
"The government (of Yemen) is dealing seriously with this issue and it will investigate it and those responsible will be brought to justice," Rajeh Badi, an aide to Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa, told Reuters.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged the Sanaa authorities on Friday to investigate the case "without delay and to prosecute all those responsible for this crime".
In a statement, she said the Arabian Peninsula country should reinstate a law setting a minimum age for marriage.
Many poor families in Yemen marry off young daughters to save on the costs of bringing up a child and earn extra money from the dowry given to a girl.
According to the United Nations around half of Yemen's 24 million people lack sufficient food and access to safe water.
Under international norms such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every person regardless of their age must give their consent before they can be married.
Human Rights Watch previously urged Yemen's government to ban marriages of girls under the age of 18. It said nearly 14 percent of Yemeni girls were married before the age of 15 and 52 percent before the age of 18. HRW said many Yemeni child brides-to-be are kept from school when they reach puberty.
The European Union spends some $79.85 million a year on aid to Yemen.
Copyright 2013 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.
Omar Sobhani / Reuters file
Abdul Rahman Hotak gestures as he speaks during an interview in Kabul on July 1, 2013.
KABUL, Afghanistan -- As American and NATO forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of next year, some fear the Afghan government's efforts to bring the Taliban into the political fold may mean a step back in time for the country's women.
After the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom toppled the militant Taliban regime 12 years ago, girls' schools reopened, burqas were no longer compulsory and many women went back to work. So when the Afghan government last week appointed a former Taliban official as a commissioner on the newly established independent human rights commission, many were shocked.
Abdul Rahman Hotak, nominated for the post by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, was the editor of Taliban newspaper "Afghan Sunrise" and worked for the group's education directorate during its rule – an alarming choice, some say, for someone tasked with championing the rights of women who were denied so many freedoms under the Taliban.
Hotak also opposes Karzai's proposed Elimination of Violence Against Women law (EVAW), which would make domestic and public violation against women punishable by law. Criticized for being un-Islamic, it has been languishing in Afghanistan's parliament since 2009.
"I want to help the women… I want to try to tell people that they are our mothers, our sisters, our daughters," Hotak told NBC News, claiming that he actually championed women's rights during the Taliban regime and asked them to allow girls to go to school.
He said his ideas and politics were not in line with the Taliban's and that he was compelled to work for them because there was "no other option when there is a government like that."
Shah Marai / AFP - Getty Images file
Shukria Barakzai speaks in Kabul in a photo from 2010.
As for opposing EVAW, he said he believes that if most politicians are not in agreement about a piece of legislation then it must mean it is flawed.
Nonetheless, his appointment does not sit well with some.
"We need the human rights commissioner to be independent and we ask the president to rethink his choice … It is not a good choice for an ex-Taliban to be in this role," said Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament who hopes to run for president in next year's election.
Barakzai, known as "the woman feared by both NATO and the Taliban" for her outspoken views, has been fighting for women's rights for years.
She believes promoting people like Hotak gives the Taliban and other conservative groups a "green light" to strike political deals that would hold women back further – deals designed to make peace more attractive to Taliban leaders. "They will not join forces but they will benefit from each other," she said.
"All these years it is not only the Taliban who have been problematic for women's rights but equally the government, members of parliament and the legislative committee," Barakzai said.
Just this past May, conservatives in parliament surreptitiously removed a law which stipulated there should be at least 25 percent female representation in the upper house. Female politicians fought to have the law reinstated when they discovered the move. A spokesman at the presidential palace would not comment but said the reinstatement was waiting to be approved by the upper house and the president.
Additionally, in 2012 Karzai endorsed a "code of conduct" law that protects men from being prosecuted for rape within a marriage, and allows husbands to beat their wives under certain circumstances.
Shah Marai / AFP - Getty Images
More than ten years after the beginning of the war, Afghanistan faces external pressure to reform as well as ongoing internal conflicts.
"The government and the Taliban have a shared view when it comes to women," Barakzai said.
However, after facing years of hurdles, Barakzai now welcomes the Taliban in Afghan politics. "I just don't want to see any more violence – that is why I would rather have the Taliban in parliament. It is the only way to end the killing." She believes if the Taliban were part of the government, they would be forced to follow the law and adopt democracy. They would have to put an end to their violent principles, she says.
"The only difference between the Taliban then and the Taliban now is that they no longer wear turbans, but are dressed in smart suits. However the principles are the same as before," she said. "But we will civilize them."
For some, like student Halima Rashidi, it doesn't matter who is in charge – the outcome is all that matters.
"I don't think that only people who are in the government right now can change the future of women. A Taliban or mujahedeen can also do that, too. It is not important for me who is running the show but I need protection and my rights, peace and security and a better future."
Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP - Getty Images
Members of the radical protest group Femen, (from left) Josephine Markmann, Pauline Hillier and Marguerite Stern raise their fists upon arrival at Orly airport on Thursday in Paris.
TUNIS, Tunisia -- A Tunisian court on Wednesday decided to release three European feminist activists who staged a topless protest in Tunis last month against the Islamist-led government.
The release of the three women -- one German and two French members the women's rights group, Femen -- could ease the anger of the European Union, Tunisia's main economic ally.
They were sentenced to four months in jail for indecency earlier this month after their May 29 protest to call for the release of fellow activist Tunisian Amina Tyler.
Tyler, 18, remains in custody, awaiting trial. She was arrested in Kairouan on May 19 after she hung a feminist banner from the wall of a mosque and tried to bare her breasts, on the same day that the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia group held a rally in the city that authorities tried to ban.
The decision to jail the three European women angered France, Germany and the European Union who urged the Islamist-led government to reform its laws on freedom of expression.
"The court sentenced these three activists to four months suspended jail terms... (the) women would leave Tunisia as soon as possible", one of their lawyers, Souhaib Bahri, told Reuters.
Anis Mili / Reuters, file
Police officers detain an activist from the feminist group Femen during a protest against the arrest of their Tunisian member Amina Tyler, in front of Tunisia's Ministry of Justice in Tunis May 29, 2013.
Witnesses said the women left the prison of Manouba late on Wednesday night.
Marguerite Stern and Pauline Hillier of France and Josephine Markmann of Germany apologized on Wednesday during their appeals hearing.
"I didn't think it was going to shock Tunisians to that extent. I would never do it again. We want to return to our country and our loved ones," Hillier said.
Femen has staged protests across Europe, mainly against Russia's detention of the all-female Pussy Riot punk band last year.
The new government is led by a moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, but hardline Islamist Salafists are seeking a broader role for religion, alarming a secular elite which fears this could undermine individual freedoms, women's rights and democracy.
Tunisia was the first country to be rocked by an "Arab Spring" uprising, inspiring similar revolutions in Egypt and Libya.
Secular groups say the Islamist-led government is trying to stifle freedom of expression and creativity, but the government strongly denies this.
Saudi Arabia's Wojdan Shaherkani (top) competes in the London 2012 Olympic Games
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Girls in Saudi Arabia are to be allowed to take part in school sports for the first time in the latest sign that the Islamic kingdom is inching forward on the contentious issue of women’s rights.
Female students enrolled in private girls’ schools will be able to take part as long as they wear ‘decent clothing’ and are supervised by female Saudi instructors within the tight regulations of the country’s Ministry of Education, the official Saudi Press Agency announced Sunday.
“I think it’s a really good idea,” said Hala Tashkandi, a junior student of Applied Linguistics at Prince Sultan University, a private college in the capital, Riyadh. “Physical education for girls is sorely lacking, which is a shame because some of the best athletes I know are female.”
However, most girls are educated in public schools where the rules forbidding female competitive sports will not be relaxed.
It means school sport will remain restricted to members of the wealthy elite, despite the country’s need for more female athletes. Last year, the country's first two female Olympians took part in the London games following pressure from the International Olympic Committee which signaled at the Beijing 2008 games that it would no longer allow countries to restrict entry on the basis of gender.
Sarah Attar competed in the women’s 800m race, while Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani took part in judo after a deal was reached with officials allowing her to wear her hijab.
Saudi women are barred from driving and must seek the permission of a male "guardian", usually a father, husband or brother, to marry, travel abroad, open a bank account, work or have some forms of elective surgery.
Until recently, it seemed Saudi Arabia’s vocal minority of zealots were winning the ideological battle and sustaining the marginalization of women, but recent announcements suggest the tide may finally be turning.
Streeter Lecka / Getty Images
Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia competes in the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Last week, a campaign featuring domestic abuse was launched to raise awareness in a country where such subjects are still considered largely taboo.
In January, the country’s reform-minded monarch, King Abdallah, appointed 30 women to the Shura Council despite a huge backlashfrom the religious establishment and comments on twitter and local blogs that branded them “infidels” and women of “loose character.”
Manal Sanai a final year student at Najd, a private girls’ school in central Riyadh, said she was excited by news about school sports. “Most girls don’t know their potential in sports because of the lack of exposure to any kind of physical activity and this will be a good chance to develop their talents,” she said.
Sports and activities such as dancing do take place, but only in private clubs with membership fees of upwards of $2,000 a year and can still be raided by the Mutawwa – or religious police.
Jan. 15: NBC News producer Lubna Hussain is a London-born Saudi citizen. She writes a column for Arab News, a prominent Saudi publication. She also hosts a public affairs talk show called "Bridges" on Saudi television. She shared her observations about the current status of women in Saudi Arabia.
Afaf Al Hamdan, the former manager of the Al Manahil Center for Women, which runs several physical educational programs catering to the city’s wealthy elite, questioned why sport would not be extended to public schools.
“The big bulk of students are in government schools and don’t have the means to pay for private clubs,” she said. “If these classes are run in a female environment with students dressed properly, then there is nothing against Sharia [law].
“All women in this country, unlike those of my generation who had never even heard of exercise, should have access to the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.”
That sentiment was echoed by Tashkandi, who pointed out that the Olympians Shaherkhani and Attar were only given two weeks to train because of wrangles over their participation.
“There’s so much potential and it could be incredibly helpful in terms of their physical and mental health as well,” she said.
Michal Fattal / Reuters
Susan Silverman (C), a reform rabbi sits on the ground and prays with her daughter (L) after being asked by Israeli police to remove their prayer shawls at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on Monday. Israeli police detained the two and eight other women on Monday for wearing prayer shawls, which Orthodox tradition sees as solely for men, a spokesman said. Susan Silverman is the sister of American comedian Sarah Silverman.
JERUSALEM — Israeli police Monday detained 10 women, including the sister of American comic Sarah Silverman, as they tried to pray at a Jerusalem holy site, the head of a liberal Jewish women's group said.
Anat Hoffman, who was among those detained, said the women were stopped because they were wearing religious garb that Orthodox Judaism reserves for men only. The incident occurred at the Western Wall, one of Judaism's holiest sites.
Silverman's sister Susan, a Jerusalem rabbi from the liberal Reform stream of Judaism, was detained along with her teenage daughter.
Sarah Silverman wrote on her Facebook page that she was "SO proud" of her sister and niece for their "civil disobedience." The original post included more explicit language typical of Silverman's humor.
The women belong to "Women of the Wall," a liberal group that goes to the Western Wall each month to worship. They conduct certain rituals, such as wearing prayer shawls and skullcaps and singing out loud, practices reserved for men under strict Orthodox interpretations of Judaism. Hoffman, who was among those detained, is chairwoman of the group.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the women were detained because they acted against court-ordered regulations that bar women from wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall so as not to offend Orthodox Jewish worshippers. Rosenfeld said the women were released after several hours.
The group has been gathering at the Western Wall for a quarter century, but in recent years its activists have been increasingly detained by police. Hoffman, who chairs the group, said no woman detained has ever been formally charged with any crime.
"This is just attrition," said Hoffman. "They want to the group to become frightened."
The Monday detentions took place after about 300 people gathered at a prayer service at the Western Wall to protest Orthodox control of the site. Among the worshippers in the group, Hoffman said, were about 100 male supporters, including veterans from the legendary Israeli paratroopers' battalion that captured Jerusalem's ancient walled Old City, including the Western Wall, in the 1967 Middle East War.
In December, after Hoffman was arrested under similar circumstances, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the head of the semi-governmental Jewish Agency to come up with solutions that would allow for non-Orthodox women to pray freely at the site.
Hoffman said two of the women held by police were American rabbis from the egalitarian Conservative Jewish movement who missed a scheduled meeting with the Jewish Agency chief to discuss the very issue that landed them in police custody.
University Hospitals Birmingham via AFP - Getty Images
Malala Yousufzai speaks to critical care consultant Dr. Mav Manji at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, after she underwent surgery.
A Pakistani schoolgirl who underwent reconstructive surgery in Britain after being shot in the head by the Taliban said on Monday she felt much better and was focused on her mission to help others.
A team of doctors carried out a five-hour operation on 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai on Saturday to mend parts of her skull with a titanium plate and help restore hearing on her left side with a cochlear implant.
Speaking 24 hours after waking up from surgery at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, central England, Yousufzai said she was already walking around.
Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old shot by the Taliban in October, spoke to the media for the first time Monday and thanked them for their prayers, which she says has given her new life. NBC's Keir Simmons reports.
"I can walk a little bit, I can talk and I'm feeling better," she said from her hospital bed in a video clip released by the hospital.
"I think I will just get better very soon, and there will be no problem. The thing is my mission is the same, to help people, and I will do that," she said.
Yousufzai was shot in the head at point-blank range in October by the Taliban for advocating girls' education, and was brought to Britain for treatment.
Doctors at the hospital said they were impressed by her recovery so far and hopeful she would be discharged fairly soon, describing her as focused and enthusiastic.
"She should be feeling sorry for herself 24 hours after an operation like that, not talking about helping other people," said Dave Rosser, the hospital's medical director.
Fifteen-year-old Malala Yousufzai was shot by the Taliban for speaking out against Pakistani militants and promoting education for girls.
The attack on Yousufzai, as she left school in the Swat valley, drew widespread international condemnation, and the schoolgirl has become a symbol of resistance to the Taliban's efforts to deny women education and other rights.
"There's still a lot of support (for Yousufzai) coming in, a lot of communication coming in from around the world," Rosser said.
Related:Click for restrictions.
NHS via EPA
Malala Yousufzai of Pakistan leaving Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, Britain, on Jan. 4 after she was discharged. She will have to undergo specialist cranial surgery at a later date.
Malala Yousufzai, the Pakistani girl who rose to international fame after the Taliban nearly killed her for her efforts to promote girls’ education, has been formally nominated for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.
Her name was put forward by three members of the Norwegian parliament from the ruling Labor Party on their website Friday, which was the deadline for nominations.
Malala’s name was put forward because of "her courageous commitment to the right of girls to education. A commitment that seemed so threatening to the extremists that they chose to try and kill her," said parliamentarian Freddy de Ruiter on the Labor party web site.
De Ruiter made the nomination with fellow members of parliament Gorm Kjernli and Magne Rommetveit.
Malala was attacked in October with two other girls while traveling home from school in Pakistan’s Swat valley. The gunman boarded the van and asked for her by name before firing three shots at her — singling her out for writing a blog that criticized the Taliban for barring girls for getting an education.
A week later, Malala was flown to a hospital in the UK for treatment. She is now facing a final major surgery to place a titanium plate over the hole left in her skull. While in the hospital she has received thousands of messages from well-wishers around the world, and continued to speak out on behalf of her cause, becoming a global icon.
The Norwegian MPs said they believed that Malala was "a worthy winner for many reasons. She has become an important symbol in the fight against destructive forces that want to prevent democracy, equality and human rights."
She was also reportedly nominated by members of parliament in France, Spain and Canada. NBC News has not confirmed that information.
To be sure, it is very early in the Nobel process, which culminates with a winner in October.
The Stockholm-based Nobel Foundation, which has been awarding Nobel awards for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace since 1901, said 231 names were submitted for the Peace Prize last year, including 41 organizations.
Nominations can be made only by a select group of people worldwide, including national lawmakers, university presidents and previous Nobel winners.
Malala Yousafzai, 15, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for refusing to bow to pressure by extremists who don't want girls in Pakistan to receive an education. The winner will be announced in October. NBC's Lester Holt has more.
The foundation does not disclose the names of nominees until 50 years later. However, those who name the candidates sometimes disclose them, as in Malala’s case.
Among other reported nominees for the 2013 prize are Belarusian human rights activist Ales Belyatski, who is in jail, and Russian Lyudmila Alexeyeva.
The list of prior Nobel Peace Prize recipients is populated with presidents and large organizations — including UNICEF, Doctors without Borders, and the European Union in 2012 — and storied individuals, such as the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela.
If Malala were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, she would be the youngest by far and one of just 15 female recipients.
The average age of the 100 individuals is 62, according to the Nobel foundation. The youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate so far is Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman, who was 32 when he was awarded the honor in 2011.
The Pakistani schoolgirl, who survived a Taliban assassination attempt, will soon have what doctors hope will be her final operation, before she returns to full health. Malala Yousufzai's surgeons will fit a titanium plate over a hole in her skull which was shattered by the gunman's bullet. ITV's Rupert Evelyn reports.
Florian Seefried / Getty Images
Model and writer Waris Dirie, shown in 2010, is an advocate against female genital mutilation.
In 1970, when Waris Dirie was a 5-year-old in Somalia, her mother held her down on a rock. She gave her a piece of root from an old tree.
"Bite on this," she said. Her mother leaned over and whispered: "Try to be a good girl. Be brave for Mama, and it will go fast." Then, an old woman who was with them in the African bush cut off parts of her genitals with a broken razor blade.
With this graphic description, in her 1997 book "Desert Flower" an international bestseller, Dirie became one of the leading activists in a global campaign against female genital mutilation, or FGM — a practice that millions of girls are subjected to each year.
On Thursday, in a major victory for that campaign, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a global ban on FGM.
The resolution urges the 193 U.N. member states to condemn the practice, and to launch educational campaigns to eliminate it. It urges all countries to enact and enforce legislation to prohibit FGM, to protect women and girls "from this form of violence" and to end impunity for violators. Although not legally binding, UN General Assembly resolutions carry considerable moral and political weight.
Activists hailed the U.N. move.
"This an important moment for everyone engaged in the fight against FGM — and most particularly for all the girls and women who have been affected by this grotesque practice," said José Luis Díaz, U.N. representative for the non-profit rights group Amnesty International, which was among the groups that pushed for the resolution.
"The UN resolution places FGM in a human rights framework and calls for a holistic approach, stressing the importance of empowerment of women, promotion and protection of sexual and reproductive health and breaking the cycle of discrimination and violence.”
The procedure, as detailed in Dirie’s book, is often crude, painful and dangerous — leading to many fatal infections.
After cutting her genitals, the old woman used "thorns from the Acacia tree to puncture holes in my skin, then poked a strong white thread through the holes to sew me up,” she wrote. “My legs were completely numb, but the pain between them was so intense that I wished I would die."
"Lying there alone with my legs still tied, I could do nothing but wonder, why? What was it all for? At that age I didn’t understand anything about sex. All I knew was that I had been butchered with my mother’s permission."
Dirie fled her Somali community, and an arranged marriage, at 13, and went on to become a top model, and an actress in one of the James Bond movies. In 2002 she set up Desert Flower Foundation in Vienna to support her work against FGM.
FGM is often undertaken to reinforce traditional beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behavior, according to the World Health Organization. Many communities believe the process, also called female circumcision, reduces a woman's libido and therefore reduces the chances of her engaging in premarital or extramarital sex.
When a vaginal opening is closed off or narrowed through the process, the pain of opening it, and the fear that it would be found out, is considered further deterrent to "illicit" sexual intercourse.
Though no major religious writings prescribe the practice, practitioners often believe the practice has religious support. Religious leaders take varying positions with regard to FGM: some promote it, some consider it irrelevant to religion, and others condemn it and contribute to its elimination.
The World Health Organization estimates that about 140 million girls and women worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM. In Africa, an estimated 92 million girls age 10 and older have undergone FGM.
Amnesty International estimates 3 million girls face FGM each year. The group says the practice is commonplace in 28 countries in Africa, as well as in Yemen, Iraq, Malaysia, Indonesia and in certain ethnic groups in South America. It also occurs in among immigrant communities, including those in Europe and the United States, though it is unclear how frequently.
Thursday’s U.N. resolution could have a significant impact on halting FGM, according to Amy Fairbairn, director of communications for Tostan, a non-profit development organization working in Africa. But because FGC is a social norm in some countries and regions, she believes change requires more work on the grassroots level. (The organization prefers to use term "female genital cutting" because it is less judgmental.)
"The ban reaffirms an important message that the international community does not believe female genital cutting should continue," she said. "At the country level, it may help more countries to look at this practice and to look at the most effective ways of approaching it."
She said that Tostan promotes the end to GFC within communities as part of an overall human rights program, which generates more homegrown incentive for change.
"There is tremendous progress under way," she said. "Most notably for us, there is historic progress in the growing movement to end FGC in West Africa, where to date nearly 6,000 communities have publicly abandoned the practice, over 5,000 of those in Senegal alone where the FGC-Free Senegal movement is really gaining momentum."
NBC News' Kari Huus contributed to this report.
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Kevin Lamarque / AFP - Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers a speech "Frontlines and Frontiers: Making Human Rights a Human Reality" at Dublin City University in the Irish capital Thursday.
In an emotional speech as she nears the end of her term of office, Hillary Clinton warned there would be "many sacrifices and losses" before daughters were "valued as sons" across the world, according to reporters traveling with the secretary of state.
Clinton, speaking Thursday at Dublin City University in Ireland, was given a humanitarian award by the non-governmental organization Concern Worldwide, whose chief executive Tom Arnold hailed her as "one of the greatest" secretaries of state "in the history of the Republic."
Clinton spoke about what human rights meant to her personally, describing what it was like to be a female official visiting male-dominated countries.
"As the mother of a daughter, and as someone who believes strongly in the right of every person, male and female, to have the opportunity to live up to his or her God-given potential," Clinton said, "it pains me so greatly when I travel to places around the world and am received almost as an exception to the rule, where the male leaders meet with me because I am the secretary of state of the United States, overlooking the fact that I also happen to be a woman."
"We are on the right side of history in this struggle, but there will be many sacrifices and losses until we finally reach a point where daughters are valued as sons, where girls as educated as boys, where women are encouraged and permitted to make their contributions to their families, to their societies just as the men are," she added.
'Moved' by Pakistan schoolgirl's story
Clinton, who opened the school's new conflict resolution institute, picked out the case of Malala Yousufzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl shot by a Taliban gunman over her outspoken belief that girls should receive an education. Her activism started in 2008, when she was about 11 years old, and she wrote a blog for BBC News about her experiences.
"All of us were moved by the story of the young Pakistani girl, Malala, who was targeted by the Taliban for the effrontery for going to school — more than that, speaking out for the rights of girls in Pakistan to go to school," Clinton said.
"She was miraculously spared from being literally shot in the face and is making what appears to be an excellent recovery," she added. "For every young woman whose name comes to our attention, there are countless others who suffer in silence, who face cultural and social and religious barriers to their human rights and dignity."
Clinton said she did not mind that she had been called an idealist and also a realist.
"In reality, I think we all need to be more of a hybrid, perhaps idealistic realists," she said. "Because leading effectively cannot be done without our values. And a great deal of what is happening today bears that out."
Clinton, who is standing down as secretary of state, said she had traveled to more "far-flung places than I could have imagined as a young girl growing up in the middle of America in the decades that followed World War II."
"And I must say that among the most striking things that I have learned is how much we have in common," she said. "I've sat down with people everywhere, discussing what was in their hearts and on their minds. And it doesn't take long to find commonality which is often overlooked, ignored, dismissed, and rejected otherwise."
Clinton chokes up
Clinton choked up a little when speaking about "a great friend of mine," Inez McCormack, a labor leader in Northern Ireland who she said had worked to bring peace and reconciliation to an area blighted by sectarian conflict.
"Inez lives in Derry, where she's fighting cancer, and I called her before coming here to check in on her, and asked her how she was doing," she said. "She's very brave and putting up with all the treatments, knowing that it's a hard road for her. And she did not want to talk about herself; she wanted to talk about her daughter, who moved up the date of her wedding, which made her very happy."
"But she wanted to talk about how we had to keep working to bring people together so that they would recognize the common humanity and experience in the other," Clinton added.
Clinton was due to travel to Northern Ireland Friday to lend support to a fragile peace that was one of the greatest successes of her husband's presidency.
She visits a province transformed by the 1998 peace agreement but still riven by sectarian loyalties, with a prison officer shot dead by nationalist militants last month and unionist protesters rioting over the removal of a British flag.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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