Efua Dorkenoo, who helped lead a successful 30-year campaign against the tradition of genital cutting of girls and women, mainly in Africa and the Middle East, by casting the practice as a human rights violation, died Oct. 18 in London. She was 65.
Equality Now, a London-based women’s rights organization she helped lead, said the cause was cancer.
Dorkenoo started organizations to battle genital cutting and coordinated the effort more broadly as acting director of women’s health at the World Health Organization in the late 1990s.
She wrote articles and an influential book — “Cutting the Rose: Female Genital Mutilation” (1996) — and lobbied the British government and international organizations. She also knocked on doors in London immigrant neighborhoods and African villages to spread her message.
Jane Kramer of The New Yorker, writing on the magazine’s website, called Dorkenoo the “warrior in chief” of the struggle against genital cutting of women. “She inspired a generation of feminists across the world to take up the cause of banning the procedure,” Kramer wrote.
Last year, the U.N. General Assembly voted unanimously to recognize female genital cutting as a human rights violation. This year, the British government prosecuted it as a crime for the first time, another of Dorkenoo’s objectives.
And an African-led organization she helped found, The Girl Generation: Together to End FGM, began work this month. Dorkenoo (Mama Efua to her admirers) was to have led the team, which is based in London and Nairobi.
Even more encouraging for her supporters, the practice is declining in many nations, the U.N. Children’s Fund reported last year.
In Egypt, where more women have been cut than in any other nation, surveys showed that 81 percent of 15- to 19-year-olds had undergone the practice, compared with 96 percent of women in their late 40s.
Female genital cutting involves pricking, piercing or amputating some or all of the external genitalia. Sometimes the vulva is closed, leaving a small hole for the passage of urine and menstrual blood.
The practice is believed to have originated about 4,000 years ago in Egypt or the Horn of Africa. Today it is prevalent in 27 countries in Africa, as well as in Yemen and Iraqi Kurdistan and to a lesser extent in communities of immigrants around the world.
The World Health Organization says female genital cutting has no health benefits and can cause severe bleeding, problems urinating and, later in life, cysts, infections and infertility. It is said to be intended to reduce women’s sexual pleasure — and does — and to preserve a woman’s virginity until marriage.
World health authorities say that more than 125 million women living today in the countries where it is concentrated have experienced such cutting.
Efua Dorkenoo was born in Cape Coast, Ghana, on Sept. 6, 1949, one of 11 children. She emigrated to London at 17 and became a nurse. She was aware of female genital cutting, she said, but did not personally experience it. She saw the procedure firsthand in the 1970s, when she attended a birth. The mother was so badly scarred, she said, that she could not deliver her baby through natural childbirth.
Dorkenoo began campaigning against the practice in the early 1980s. After earning a master’s degree from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, she published one of the first reports on the practice.
That helped her secure funds to establish, in 1983, the Foundation for Women’s Health and Development to promote the health of African women and girls, with a focus on abolishing female genital cutting. Britain outlawed it within two years.
Dorkenoo’s work with the foundation led to her joining the World Health Organization in 1995. As acting director of women’s health, a post she held until 2001, she coordinated national action plans against female genital cutting in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Cameroon, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan. She also persuaded the organization to classify it as a human rights violation.