by Matt Rosenberg October 12th, 2011
Just published in the October issue of Social Science and Medicine, a new study of communities in Senegal and Gambia over three years led by University of Washington anthropologist Bettina Shell-Duncan finds that the controversial practice of female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting, is not mainly performed – as has been thought – to help women become more marriageable. Instead, Shell-Duncan and her research team found that the main impetus is conforming with strongly-enforced social conventions advanced by other women in community networks who’ve already undergone the procedure. In essence, the study finds that where female genital cutting is still common, it happens because younger women must either conform to the convention or be ostracized and shunned, losing important economic and social support, and social mobility.
The study, sponsored by the World Health Organization and National Science Foundation, concludes that traditional public health interventions emphasizing the medical reasons to forego female genital cutting aren’t enough, and that to reduce its prevalence community members themselves, across generations, have to renounce cutting and establish new ways of signaling loyalty and adherence to social networks. An example of this approach, Shell-Duncan’s study reports, is the so-called “Tostan Program” which involves public declarations to end the practice. It has led to the end of cutting in more than 5,300 Senegalese villages and is spreading into Gambia’s Upper River Region.
1970s approaches found ineffective
Female genital cutting (FGC) refers to the partial or full removal of external female genitalia. Common types of FGC include removal of the clitoris and sometimes also the labia minora. FGC occurs in the northern half of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Sudan, Egypt, portions of Asia and the Middle East, “as well as across the African diaspora,” according to the study. Widespread efforts to reduce or end FGC began in the 1970s with information and education programs on related health dangers but after two decades had shown limited results, prompting a new look at interventions and their underlying assumptions.
Extensive field interviews, survey groups complement questionnaire
Working with Gambian consultants, Shell-Duncan’s research team conducted over 300 field interviews and 28 focus groups to develop an “ethnographically-grounded” questionnaire answered by 1,220 women in semi-urban communities outside the Gambian capital of Banjul, the Gambian rural border area of Baddibu and the Senegalese region across the border from Baddibu, mostly in the rural Kaoloack area which includes several of the villages in the successful Tostan anti-cutting program. The intent was to include areas and ethnicities with different attitudes and decision processes around FGC. Respondents came from the Mandinka, Wolof, Fula, Serer, Jola and other ethnic groups. One relatively common characteristic of all questionnaire-takers was lack of post-primary education. Only 18 percent had attended secondary school and 1.5 percent college. Fifty-six percent had undergone FGC.
Drawing on the questionnaire results, the interviews and focus groups, researchers found:
- 72 percent of all respondents disagreed that “a girl who is not circumcised will have difficulty finding a husband;” among circumcised women 68 percent disagreed. “When respondents did assert that circumcision was important or necessary for a good marriage, it was most often not because men refused to marry an uncircumcised woman, but because an uncircumcised woman marrying into a circumcising family would face difficult relationships with other women in her marital home.”
- Under the old hypothesis that FGC is a “marriage convention” there would be no need to enforce the practice, it would just be expected and done, but in fact it’s promoted strongly through negative sanctions. “Those who choose not to circumcise a daughter face direct pressure from family and community members….uncircumcised girls and women face substantial harassment from circumcised women of all ages…(they) are contemptuously insulted by being labeled solima, meaning not only uncircumcised, but also rude, ignorant, immature, uncivilized and unclean….”
- Female genital cutting is a way to secure social capital, or currency in social networks that help women navigate and survive the widespread poverty, frequent crises, and scarce opportunities in Senegambia. For women and men, far-reaching networks of friends, acquaintances and family provide assistance with childcare, costs of living, employment and business opportunities. “As insiders, circumcised women cement their belonging in their social network and maximize their social capital by excluding uncircumcised women through harassment and ostracism…female circumcision serves as a signal that girls have been taught the art of subordination to their future husband, husband’s brothers, and most importantly, to their mothers in-law.”
What side of the road will the cars drive on?
In an interview Shell-Duncan said the study demonstrates that “the decision of one individual is linked to that of others, and you need to get people to collectively agree to change a practice.” An apt analogy, proposed by her colleague Gerry Mackie, a University of California-San Diego political scientist, is the convention of driving on the right or left side of the road, she said. An individual who decides alone to drive on a different side of the road risks serious personal injury, but if everyone agrees, then the change works. “Reform efforts will likely not be successful if they are aimed only at young girls and their mothers. Female elders and members of their social circles need to be included for stable change to occur.”
Co-authors of the study, along with Shell-Duncan, were Katherine Wander, University of Washington Department of Anthropology; Ylva Hernlund, a Seattle-based independent consultant; and Amadou Moreau, Global Research and Advocacy Group, Dakar, Senegal.
Donate to our tax-exempt parent non-profit, Public Eye Northwest.