I'm not going to die, I'm going home like a shooting star. Sojourner Truth
A radiant light escaped earth when a woman named Efua Dorkenoo, fighting cancer, took her last breath in her husband's arms on October 18, 2014. The "mother" of the international movement to end female genital mutilation, Efua's life journey offers human rights activists a roadmap of eagle-eyed vision and revolutionary impact.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a 5,000 year-old harmful cultural practice that affects over 130 million women and girls, mostly from Africa, but also in some countries in the Middle East, Asia and in every nation to which FGM-practicing communities emigrate. FGM, which causes lifelong health consequences, is the removal of parts or all of a girl's genitalia, including her clitoris, for the purpose of controlling her sexuality and ensuring her virginity until marriage.
I first met Efua in 1992 when we were building the international human rights organization Equality Now and FGM was only under a few people's radar. Efua was the leading expert on the issue and had already spearheaded decade-long efforts to eradicate FGM through FORWARD, the group she founded in 1983.
Then deemed taboo, FGM was largely an unknown practice categorized by anthropologists as a mere ritual to observe. Trained as a midwife, Efua recounted her horror and helplessness when she watched an infibulated Somali woman unspeakably suffer in labor, her vaginal passage sewn shut and scarred. A Cesarean saved her. Most women would not be as fortunate, such as the teenager in rural Ethiopia whose baby's head pierced through her belly after three days of protracted labor, killing them both. Potentially deadly birthing is just one of the myriad effects of FGM; if a girl survives the rite without hemorrhaging, tetanus or septicemia, infections or worse often persist throughout the years. To this day, no agency has taken it upon itself to find out how many girls die from the practice.
Maintaining a regal gaze, a dazzling smile and a heart on fire, Efua fought for society's lowest rung: the African girl. Efua was their champion. She would recount the early days when she and her colleagues lectured on FGM and were whisked through back doors to avoid stone and spit-throwing crowds infuriated that this African woman was exposing their secret rituals imposed on young girls. The Westerners remained largely indifferent.
Undeterred, her groundbreaking efforts led to including FGM onto the agenda of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, recognizing the harmful practice as a human rights violation. With her guidance, we developed one of the first public campaigns that led UNICEF to invest in FGM as a violation against girls and created a fund for grassroots groups across Africa that work to end the practice in their communities. Efua also campaigned for the World Health Organization to issue a statement against the medicalization of FGM. Her book, "Cutting the Rose. Female Genital Mutilation: the Practice and its Prevention," remains a definitive and influential source on tackling FGM.
The adoring mother of two sons and a grandson, Efua carried the African girl in her heart. She connected the devastating effects of politicized misogyny in the name of "culture" or "religion" that ensures the subordination and obedience of women. She understood that our lack of political will and investment to protect girls from child marriage, sex trafficking, sexual violence, domestic servitude, denial of education or food were sides of the same coin. Efua forced in people's consciousness that girls mean more than grains of sands crushed under the weight of burning suns; they are owed a life free of violence and discrimination.
In spite of her passionate generosity, Efua did not suffer fools. She abhorred the neo-colonialist term 'female genital cutting,' or FGC, which we knew was invented in the United States to placate FGM-practicing governments and assure them the boat would not rock too fast. Efua forcefully insisted with other African grassroots activists that the so-called cultural and religious tenets of their villages must not overshadow the urgency to abolish FGM. It was mutilation, as set forth by the laws of nations and the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa.
Efua was publically recognized from time to time, notably with the Order of the British Empire for her extraordinary contributions to end FGM in the United Kingdom and was featured in documentaries, but she nevertheless remained an unsung hero. But not to all. Among those who follow her footsteps are young survivors of FGM and child marriage, who are bucking tradition at great personal cost to ensure the knife will spare their daughters. Efua's brilliant legacy now lives in dauntless leaders like Leyla Hussein in the United Kingdom and Jaha Dukureh in the United States, whom Efua nurtured along with dozens of other young women.
"With love and determination and up until the last days of her life, Efua guided us in ensuring the world would be a safer place for the African girl-child," says Dukureh who recently founded the group Safe Hands for Girls in Atlanta. "We miss Efua dearly and will work tirelessly to see her dream come true."