The World Health Organization defines female genital cutting as any procedure that removes or injures any part of a female’s external genitalia for nonmedical reasons. While this practice brings no documented health benefits and leads to serious health problems, it is still widely used in many developing countries. A prominent view of female genital cutting is that it is a social norm that evolved culturally within the context of a coordination game and, according to this theory, a critical threshold exists such that, if the share of families is below the threshold, the probability of finding husbands without cutting one’s daughters is sufficiently high for families to reap the benefits of marriage without the health costs of cutting. The strong policy implication is that development workers must assemble a critical mass of families in a short period of time to move the share of cutting families from above to below the threshold and cutting should then disappear on its own.
Researchers tested whether FGC exhibits the characteristics of a social norm based on coordination. Due to social desirability biases in elicitation of those practices using standard surveying techniques, researchers drew upon implicit association tests (IAT) which infer attitudes towards female genital cutting from reaction times in computer tests. Their results document wide heterogeneity in cutting rates within communities and suggest the presence of other reasons underlying this norm, such as personal values concerning health, purity and religious obligations, and questions regarding future marriage prospects. In a companion study, researchers tested whether entertainment material on marriage and values could be used to influence attitudes towards this practice. For this study, the research team produced four versions of a telenovela-style movie about an extended family living in rural Sudan; the four movies shared the same primary plot, which was unrelated to cutting. The control movie included only the main plot, whereas the other three versions also portrayed disparate views on cutting that stemmed from individual values (such as whether FGC is healthier), marriageability (whether the practice enhances a girl’s marriage prospects), or both, and ended with the family’s decision to abandon cutting.
After watching their assigned film, participants completed an implicit association test that was designed to unobtrusively measure attitudes about cut versus uncut girls. The researchers show that the movies significantly improved attitudes towards girls who remain uncut; one movie in particular – that which explored local heterogeneity in both values and marriageability – had a relatively persistent effect.
The main implications of these findings are that, first, programs can take the heterogeneity within cutting societies as a point of departure, starting a debate locally instead of emphasizing the tension between human rights, as an international directive, and the local culture. Second, although results confirm that both values and marriageability are important factors influencing the attitudes towards the practice, they also point out that addressing both these aspects together produces attitudinal changes that last longer than those associated with addressing them separately. Finally, the results suggest that entertainment, by changing attitudes, could contribute to the abandonment of female genital cutting.
Considering the enormous and widespread demand for entertainment, this means that messaging related to cutting can be incorporated, for example, in television shows that are conceived from the beginning as for-proﬁt ventures, allowing to reach a relatively broad cross section of the population in question while containing the cost needed to produce and distribute entertainment material.