Public Release: 

If it's not a norm, why practice female genital cutting?

American Association for the Advancement of Science

This news release is available in Japanese.

In this Policy Forum, Charles Efferson et al. overview research that suggests that female genital cutting is perhaps not a social norm, as prevailing theory suggests. Their data question the basis of a common approach aimed at reducing the cutting practice, and could inform future policy debate in the realm of female genital cutting, where development agencies spend millions of dollars every year in efforts to reduce the practice. A prominent view of female genital cutting is that it is a social norm that evolved culturally within the context of a coordination game, where if enough community members decide to participate, a threshold is crossed and everyone else will also adopt the practice. For this reason, many development workers focus on policies that attempt to rally community members to publically denounce the practice. In spite of this widely held belief, researchers have lacked data to support the theory that female genital cutting shows the signature of a social norm based on coordination game incentives. Here, Efferson and colleagues tested this by collecting data in 45 communities in the state of Gezira, Sudan. Surveys of 2,500 families across these communities found that cutting rates did not reflect social norms in the context of a coordination game. Many families reported that they would not refuse marriage with other families in the community based on cutting practices. Alternative forces, such as the belief that some signs of sexual fidelity bring a net benefit, may be sustaining the practice, the authors say. They conclude that a single critical threshold across all families is unlikely to exist, so identifying the benefits that individual families attribute to cutting is crucial to promoting sustainable changes in values, preferences, and the harmful practices that sometimes follow. This may lead to different but more effective policy interventions, the authors say.

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Note: This paper will be available for free when the embargo lifts at http://www.sciencemag.org.

Article #1: "Female genital cutting is not a social coordination norm," by C. Efferson; S. Vogt; E. Fehr at University of Zurich in Zurich, Switzerland; A. Elhadi; H.E.F. Ahmed in Khartoum, Sudan.

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