Where Does Support for Female Genital Cutting Come From?

In what looks to be its inaugural issue, Nature Human Behaviour–a new social science journal published by the Nature group–discusses some of the research I and other economists have done on the topic of female genital cutting (FGC).

In short, the article’s angle is that, contra a popular theory that holds that FGC persistence is due to community-level factors, the persistence of FGC seems to come from individual and household-level factors:

Some economists say it’s time for a new approach. Their work, itself controversial, questions long-held views on FGC — that communities either all follow the practice, or all give it up – and thereby challenges the very underpinnings of many interventions.

Interventions should stop trying, as most do, to sway entire villages, these scientists say. They should instead target cracks in support for the practice: the influential community leader who has decided his daughters will not be cut, or the husband and wife who are divided on the fate of their daughters.

The article also talks about some of the research that my PhD student Lindsey Novak* has done on FGC in her job-marker paper:

Despite this, economists are managing to glean valuable patterns by applying statistical filters to large datasets. In one such study, Marc Bellemare of the University of Minnesota in St Paul and his doctoral student Lindsey Novak waded through health surveys of more than 300,000 women in 13 countries, taken between 1995 and 2013. They found that attitudes on FGC, and women’s own cutting status, varied within single households.

Women who reported having undergone FGC were 16 percentage points more likely to support the practice. And the largest source of variation in attitudes toward FGC—87%—was at the household or individual level, across nearly all countries and years.

“It means that women living in two different households in the same village are likely to have different opinions,” Novak says. And that, she says, suggests that decisions on cutting are made by households, not villages or regions. Other research supports this contention, and flies in the face of a prominent hypothesis about why FGC persists.

The article also mentions work by several other economists working on FGC.

* Here is a Development Impact blog post summarizing Lindsey’s job-market paper.

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