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date: 27 February 2024

Dorkenoo [née Yorke], Stella Elliott [Efua]free

(1949–2014)

Dorkenoo [née Yorke], Stella Elliott [Efua]free

(1949–2014)
  • Alex May

Dorkenoo [née Yorke], Stella Elliott [Efua] (1949–2014), health and women’s rights campaigner, was born on 6 September 1949 in Cape Coast, Ghana, one of eleven children of John Elliott Yorke, hospital administrator and later school nurse, and his wife, Marian. She was educated at Wesley Girls’ High School in Cape Coast. She moved to England at the age of nineteen, training as a nurse in London and Sheffield. While still a student nurse, on 22 September 1973, at the Wesley Chapel in Ecclesall, Sheffield, she married Ebenezer Augustus Graham (b. 1947/8), a student at the polytechnic. They had two sons, Kobina and Ebow.

It was while training as a midwife in Sheffield that Efua Graham first encountered the devastating consequences of female genital mutilation (FGM)—the partial or entire removal of the female genitalia, usually at a very young age—when a young African woman came in in labour, but was found to have undergone infibulation so severe that she was unable to give birth naturally. Efua found that both the patient and the doctors and other nurses immediately turned to her, as the only other black woman in the room, for guidance. Shocked and horrified, she resolved there and then to devote herself to researching and campaigning against the practice, which was thought to have been inflicted on at least 125 million girls and women worldwide, mainly from Africa and the Middle East. In 1980, with Scilla MacLean, she produced a report, Female Circumcision, Excision, and Infibulation, for the Minority Rights Group (the first report on the subject to be published in Britain), and in 1982 she took a master’s degree at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for a thesis on the history, variants, and distribution of the practice. The following year she set up the Foundation for Women’s Heath, Research and Development (Forward), to campaign for the abolition of FGM, with a specific focus on the sexual and reproductive health of African girls and women. It was largely through her campaigning that the practice was made illegal in Britain, through the Female Circumcision Act (1985), although it was to be almost another thirty years before anyone was prosecuted under it.

Efua Dorkenoo—her first marriage was dissolved, and on 20 April 1990, at Lewisham register office, she married Bernard Dotse Dorkenoo (b. 1924/5), a journalist—was appointed OBE for her work with Forward in 1994, and in the same year she published Cutting the Rose: Female Genital Mutilation, the Practice and its Prevention, which in 2002 was chosen by an international jury as one of Africa’s 100 best books of the twentieth century. In this she outlined in detail the history, cultural contexts and supposed justifications, geographical distribution, and physical and psychological consequences of the practices that she insisted (against some initial opposition) in describing as ‘mutilation’ (not just ‘cutting’ or ‘circumcision’). From 1995 she was acting director of the department of women’s health at the World Health Organization, developing action plans and working with governments, particularly in west and east Africa, to eradicate the practice. Frustrated with the slow pace of progress, in 2001 she left to work with the women’s organization Equality Now, which the previous year had awarded her a lifetime achievement award for her contributions to women’s rights. In 2012—by now married for a third time, to Freddie Green, though she continued to be known by the name Efua Dorkenoo—she was made an honorary senior research fellow in the school of health sciences at City University, and in 2013 she was successful in persuading the British government to provide initial funding for a new umbrella organization of campaign groups, the Girl Generation: Together to End FGM, of which she became the first programme director. The organization was formally launched, with offices in London and Nairobi, on 10 October 2014. She was pleased that earlier the same year the first criminal prosecution took place in the UK for carrying out FGM.

Dorkenoo, who was known by colleagues and fellow campaigners as Mama Efua, was widely regarded as the inspiration, pioneer, and leader of the campaign to eradicate FGM, and the key figure in moving the issue to the top of governments’ and international organizations’ agendas. She was indefatigable in pursuit of her objectives: her son Kobina recalled that after many years without taking a holiday she finally agreed to take one, but on the second day she began checking her mail, and the next she was back on the telephone and working a sixteen-hour day. She was particularly insistent that FGM should be seen as an abuse of human rights and not simply a health issue; and she had little time for the argument that it should be tolerated on the grounds of cultural sensitivities, suggesting that ‘If it was little boys getting their penises cut off, there would be a revolution’ (The Times, 29 Oct 2014). Her brave and outspoken campaigning brought her enemies as well as admirers, and she was on the receiving end of many death threats. She died in London on 18 October 2014 of ovarian cancer—working, campaigning, and persuading to the end—and was survived by her husband Freddie, her sons Kobina and Ebow, two stepsons, Galvin and Yanik, and a stepdaughter, Fummi.

Sources

  • Evening Standard (20 Oct 2014)
  • The Guardian (22 Oct 2014)
  • New Yorker (23 Oct 2014)
  • New York Times (28 Oct 2014)
  • The Times (29 Oct 2014)
  • The Independent (31 Oct 2014)
  • private information (2018)
  • m. certs. [1973, 1990]

Archives

Film

  • current affairs footage, BFINA

Sound

Likenesses

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British Library, National Sound Archive
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marriage certificate
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British Film Institute, London, National Archive