Policies aimed at eradicating female genital cutting, known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), since the 1950s have not been working as successfully as planned. A new study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, attempts to explain why.
One indicator of FGM prevalence is known as evolutionary fitness. This is a measure of an individual’s reproductive success or their genetic contribution to future generations, Janet Howard, one of the study’s coauthors, told Nature Middle East.
Adaptive benefits have been observed that may affect the frequency of FGM in a culture. In environments where it is prevalent, cutting gives women social status, better marriage prospects, and access to social support and networks, Nature Middle East stated. Conversely, in societies where it is not the norm, victims of the practice can be socially stigmatised.
In addition, FGM frequency in the mother’s ethnic group is a significant predictor of the odds of having a cut daughter.
Nevertheless, women who are not victims of FGM are less likely to have their daughters cut, even if it is the norm in their ethnic group, the study has shown. This tendency is encouraging from an eradication perspective as it suggests that once the behaviour is abandoned it is unlikely to be taken up again, the researcher told Nature Middle East.
The practice has been outlawed in Egypt since 2008, but social norms ensure that the practice is still very prevalent; 91 percent of Egyptian women have undergone FGM, according to UNICEF. It specifies a list of 29 nations where FGM is most frequently performed, calculating that 125 million females are left mutilated or cut. Egypt ranks fourth on the list with 27.2 million females scarred for life, either physically or psychologically, or both. In August, the Egyptian cabinet approved an amendment to the FGM law, stiffening the punishment to rigorous imprisonment from five to seven years, and up to 15 years of imprisonment if FGM led to permanent disability or death.
Howard explains that eradication programmes are based on the “tipping point theory”, a coordinated change among communities to switch their behaviour en masse from cutting to non-cutting.
The cultural practice in the Arab and Muslim world is very sensitive to the political environment, according to Nature Middle East. Religious leaders influence the frequency of the practice and have been applying a tipping-point approach in addressing the practice. Elsewhere it is usually directed by the political climate.
Results from the study suggest that in ethnic groups where prevalence is below 50 percent the practice is already declining. They predict that if prevalence is brought below 50 percent in any society, the same trend would follow, and the practice would slowly disappear.
FGM is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons,” the amendment added the punishment.