In many parts of the world, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is widely practiced and has become a social norm. The term describes ‚all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons’ (WHO 2013). It has no health benefits whatsoever and often comes with health complications such as severe pain (during urination, menstruation or sexual intercourse), infections, an increased risk of childbirth complications and psychological problems. The practice has been documented in 30 countries, mainly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and is usually carried out by traditional circumcisers, who often play central roles in communities (UNICEF 2013; WHO 2013).
Source: UNICEF 2013
One of the main reasons for FGM is marriageability: circumcised girls and women are considered sexually pure, faithful and more respectful and therefore marriageable (O’Neill et al. 2016; Shutti 2016). Nowadays, the practice is recognized internationally as a violation of human rights. According to World Health Organization WHO, more than 200 million girls and women living today have undergone FGM and despite the progress made regarding the abandonment of the practice, every year, three million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM. For more than two decades, numerous initiatives at international and local levels have implemented programs to eradicate FGM. Even though some efforts have proved successful (see for example: tostan.org), the limited evaluation of projects, inadequate interventions and not enough emphasis on strategy development are hindering faster progress. A question that only came up in more recent debates is what (if any) role men should play in the abandonment of FGM. I argue that not only should they play a role, they need to play a role if we want to change this social norm of FGM that will otherwise continue to destroy the lives of millions of girls in the future.
In the field of Behavioral Economics, social norms such as FGM play an important role. A social norm can be described as a rule of behavior that applies to a certain social context for a given population. People in the population prefer to follow the rule in their context if they believe that (1) most people in their reference network follow the rule (empirical expectations) and (2) most people in the reference network also believe that they ought to follow the rule and may sanction them if they don’t (normative expectations) (UNFPA/UNICEF 2016). Bicchieri (2016) for example describes what needs to happen to abandon a norm: factual and personal normative beliefs need to be changed, collective decisions abandoned, a common belief has to be established and paired with coordinated action and, once this leads to new empirical expectations, old normative expectations can be abandoned. The question is: in the case of FGM, whose beliefs need to be changed?
Paradoxically, women seem to be at the forefront of the perpetuation of FGM (Varol et al. 2015). One might conclude that consequently, it’s the women’s beliefs we need to address. Hence, there is not much evidence about the role of men regarding the practice. A study with male and female participants from several East and West African countries showed that the decision if, when and where a girl should be cut is mainly made by women. (O’Neill et al. 2016) Therefore, it seems counterintuitive at first to argue to include men in the abandonment of the practice and might even explain why the role of men has remained largely understudied. So why would anyone do so?
Firstly, most participants of the study agreed that even though women are the practitioners of FGM, the practice is done for men’s benefit and the control over the female body. In the end, men are the potential husbands to these women and usually the reason why a girl is being cut. By not circumcising their daughter, parents risk her chances of getting married, which in many countries is necessary for survival and to not be socially excluded. Tony Mwebia, a Kenyan NGO worker and blogger, has started the campaign #MenEndFGM in 2013. According to him, ‚All the reasons as to why women undergo FGM are either directly or indirectly geared towards pleasing men, or benefitting them in one way or another.‘ (Mwebia 2017) Therefore, more emphasis needs to be put on including men in the fight, acknowledging that they are essentially the reason why this is being done to girls. Secondly, several studies suggest that in most communities, men have the final say, which means that if men oppose the practice, it is more likely to stop. This also means that if a man shows support for the practice, even if it is silent support by not speaking out against it, it becomes more difficult for other family members to stop the practice even if they are willing to. In China, the footbinding of girls, which was a practice with similar sociocultural underpinnings as FGM, the advocacy of men had played a crucial role in the abandonment of the practice. (Ismail 2017; Ouma and McCool 2018; Varol et al. 2015) Thirdly, in many countries, the proportion of men wanting FGM to end is actually higher than the proportion of women – a major problem here seems to be the lack of communication between men and women. In a behavior change study in Senegal and The Gambia, the findings suggest that if men were involved in the decision making regarding their daughter’s FGM, the girls were more likely to remain uncut. (Shell-Duncan et al. 2011) And finally, women are not the only victims of the practice. Obviously, it’s the women who suffer the most but losing their wives during childbirth due to complications resulting from FGM, having financial difficulties due to numerous hospital visits, not being able to get help from their wives regarding physical work and seeing their wives suffer during intercourse also affects the men married to these women.
Not including men in the movement means ignoring a valuable source of support for the practice to end. This doesn’t mean it’s the men’s responsibility only, it means that men should be educated and involved along with the women from their communities. All campaigns, workshops, projects and conferences dealing with ending FGM should make sure to address and include more men in the process of abandoning this social norm, or, to quote the founder of #MenEndFGM: ‚By not involving men in the fight against FGM is like a doctor treating symptoms of a disease and ignoring the disease‘. (Mwebia 2017)
Bicchieri, C. (2016). Norms in the Wild: How to Diagnose, Measure, and Change Social Norms. Oxford University Press, New York.
Ismail, K. et al. (2017). The Opinion and Role of Men in Female Circumcision in Khartoum State in 2015-2016. Reproductive System and Sexual Disorders, 6(3). Available at: https://www.longdom.org/open-access/the-opinion-and-role-of-men-in-female-circumcision-in-khartoum-state-in-20152016-2161-038X-1000212.pdf. [Accessed 19 Jul. 2019].
Mwebia, T. (2017). #MenEndFGM. Available at: https://tonymwebia.co.ke/menendfgm/ [Accessed 19 Jul. 2019]
O’Neill et al. (2016). „Men have a role to play but they don’t play it“: A mixed methods study exploring men’s involvement in Female Genital Mutilation in Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Men Speak Out. Available at: https://www.forwarduk.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Men-Speak-Out-Study.pdf. [Accessed 19. Jul. 2019]
Ouma, K. and McCool, A. (2018). What Role Can Men Play In The Fight Against FGM? Available at: https://www.elle.com/uk/life-and-culture/g20413598/what-role-can-men-play-in-the-fight-against-fgm/ [Accessed 19 Jul. 2019]
Shutti, G. (2016). Men have a role in ending FGM, it’s time they play it. Available at: http://gal-dem.com/men-role-ending-fgm-time-play/ [Accessed 19. Jul. 2019]
UNFPA/UNICEF (2016). Dynamics of a Social Norm: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. Available at: https://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/resource-pdf/ALL-HANDOUTS.pdf. [Accessed 19 Jul. 2019]
UNICEF (2013). Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change. Available at: https://www.unicef.org/cbsc/files/UNICEF_FGM_report_July_2013_Hi_res.pdf. [Accessed 19 Jul. 2019]
Shell-Duncan et al. (2011). Dynamics of Change in the Practice of Female Genital Cutting in Senegambia: Testing Predictions of Social Convention Theory. Social Science and Medicine, 73 (8). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3962676/. [Accessed 19 Jul. 2019]
Varol, N. et al. (2015). The role of men in abandonment of female genital mutilation: a systematic review. BMC Public Health, 15 (1034). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4599697/. [Accessed 19 Jul. 2019].
WHO (2013). Sexual and reproductive health: Female genital mutilation. Available at: https://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/prevalence/en/. [Accessed 19 Jul. 2019].