Ending female genital mutilation is one of the top priorities of human rights groups around the world: it is dangerous, unnecessary, and unfair to girls who are often cut against their will.
And yet, around the world, FGM remains an entrenched and popular cultural practice, a fact that puzzled researchers at the University of Bristol in England.
The scientists combed through data from more than 60,000 women in West Africa who had children to try and understand why generation after generation continues the practice of having their daughters’ genitals surgically cut, and what they found surprised them.
Women who had been cut had more babies who survived than women who did not.
And while that may sound like a perplexing conclusion for such a dangerous practice — whole or partial genital mutilation can lead to bleeding, infections, lifelong urinary problems, and serious dangers in having children — Janet Howard, the author of the article, said the conclusion was actually much more a reflection of culture than medical safety.
"In societies where cutting is the norm, being cut gives women social status and more social support among women," she told NPR. "They have more and better marriage opportunities" — and thus a better chance of bearing children.”
More than 200 million women and girls have had their genitals cut, according to the World Health Organization. The procedure is usually done as a cultural or religious practice, a coming-of-age ritual or one that allegedly sanctifies a girl’s purity or makes her more attractive to a potential husband.
Women who are uncut may be deemed less attractive to a potential mate and therefore less likely to have children, Howard said. Uncut women can be ostracized both by single men and by other women in the community because they are seen as unclean, Katherine Wander, a researcher at Binghamton University in New York, told NPR.
“When women who are not cut marry into a family with a cutting tradition, they're treated quite horribly," Wander said. "They're made fun of. People won't eat the food they prepare. They're called dirty and spiritually impure. The primary source of conflict is not with their husband but with other women in the household, who look at them with disgust."
The United Nations, the WHO, and a slew of other human rights groups including Global Citizen have worked to try and end FGM where it is practiced by outlawing it and educating women and men about its danger.
But the new study, appearing in Nature Ecology and Evolution, suggests that efforts to end FGM should actually shift away from focusing on the health risks. People have heard those messages and continue the practice due to societal pressure, Wander said.
Instead, bridging the gap between cut and uncut women may be a better solution. Advocates could help connect the two different groups through shared concerns or through recreation, like singing and dancing, which could then lead to conversations between the women about the risks and benefits of cutting.
And then, through the slow evolution of cultural practices and norms, the world could finally see an end to FGM.