Worldwide an estimated 125 million girls and women are cut despite the fact that female genital cutting leads to serious health problems throughout life. Development agencies spend considerable resources each year on programs that attempt to reduce cutting. These programs are often based on the assumption that cutting is a deeply entrenched social norm arising from a strong need for families to be alike.
If the local norm is to cut, all families cut their daughters, and they all want cut wives for their sons. Sonja Vogt, one of the study’s lead authors from the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich, explains, “According to this theory, there are incentives for families to continue cutting so their daughters can grow up and get married. A single family cannot behave differently in this case without being stigmatized.”
The same logic would apply if the norm took the opposite form. No family would cut, and no family would want cut wives for their sons. If matching other families’ behavior is the key mechanism, the social environment is the critical factor either for or against cutting. One expects that almost all families cut, or nearly none of them do.
The study from the University of Zurich, however, reveals a very different pattern. Both between and most importantly within communities, families show large differences in terms of attitudes and practices related to cutting. Charles Efferson, the other lead author of the study, says, “Families who cut and families who do not essentially live door to door.”
Rethinking public declarations
The results of the new study question the widespread use of public declarations as a strategy to reduce female genital cutting. Development agencies organize public declarations as a way for families to publicly renounce cutting. If enough families participate, the declaration serves to trigger a new norm and advertise that uncut daughters will have the best marriage prospects in the future. Other families in the community should then abandon cutting on their own in order to follow the new norm.
The results of the study, however, question the central assumptions of public declarations. Because attitudes and practices vary so much among families, public declarations run the risk of simply collecting those families already inclined toward not cutting. As Vogt explains, “A declaration could then have little or no effect on the remaining families in a community. These families have important private reasons for cutting that do not revolve around trying to be like other families in the area.”
Charles Efferson, Sonja Vogt, Amy Elhadi, Hilal El Fadil Ahmed, Ernst Fehr. Female genital cutting is not a social coordination norm. Science. September 25, 2015. doi: 10.1126/science.aaa7978
nullHow the study was conductetdIn the communities in Sudan where the study was conducted, henna is applied to a young girl’s feet when she is cut. For this reason, henna is an observable sign that a girl has been recently cut. The researchers used this fact to develop a new and culturally appropriate method for estimating cutting rates. They also developed a novel test to measure attitudes about cutting that adults might not want to reveal explicitly. The researchers used mobile computer labs to implement the test in a way that completely preserved the anonymity of participants. null