Ending the scourge of female genital cutting

Published online 14 March 2017

A look at FGC practices using a cultural evolutionary approach can help policy makers understand why eradication efforts are not very successful. 

Sarah Elmeshad

© Friedrich Stark / Alamy Stock Photo
A study by Janet Howard and Mhairi Gibson, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution1, aims to help policy-makers learn why their efforts to eradicate female genital cutting (FGC) have not succeeded.  

Since 1951, efforts have been made to stop FGC, commonly known as female genital mutilation (FGM). In 2016 the United Nations General Assembly adopted The Girl Child Resolution which labels FGM a form of "discrimination  against  the  girl  child  and  the violation of  the rights  of the  girl  child."

Policy-makers, human rights advocates, scientists, cultural anthropologists and experts in various fields study the harmful practice. Marta Agosti, coordinator of the FGM programme with UNICEF and UNFPA between 2008 and 2012, says there have been changes in the practice in the Arab and Muslim world. FGC policies have been politicized in the region, but the process is more likely to be performed by a medical professional. While this reduces the harm, the risks are still enormous.

“This behaviour has proved resistant to change and we hope that a greater understanding of why it persists may be used to instruct eradication programmes,” says Howard, co-author of a paper that studied 47 ethnic groups in five West African countries. “We applied an evolutionary approach to answer the question of why FGC persists in these cultures.”

According to the study, FGC is a frequency-dependent behavior. 

“FGC frequency in the mother’s ethnic group is a significant predictor of the odds of having a cut daughter,” Howard explains. Another indicator of FGC prevalence is known as evolutionary fitness. This is a measure of an individual’s reproductive success or their genetic contribution to future generations, the researcher says. 

Adaptive benefits have been observed that may affect the frequency of FGC in a culture. In environments where it is prevalent, cutting gives women social status, better marriage prospects, and access to social support and networks. Conversely, in societies where it is not the norm, victims of the practice can be socially stigmatized. 

This study has shown women who are not cut are less likely to have their daughters cut, even if it is the norm in their ethnic group. This tendency is encouraging from an eradication perspective as it suggests that once the behavior is abandoned it is unlikely to be taken up again, Howard says. 

Howard explains that eradication programmes are based on the "tipping point theory”, a coordinated change among communities to switch their behavior en masse from cutting to non-cutting.

Agosti says that the cultural practice in the Arab and Muslim world is very sensitive to the political environment. 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 Howard and Gibson’s study suggest that in ethnic groups where prevalence is below 50% the practice is already declining. They predict that if prevalence is brought below 50% in any society, the same trend would follow, and the practice would slowly disappear.  

Howard suggests that a piecemeal approach, which reduces prevalence incrementally may be effective in affecting cutting prevalence.

Although the study focuses on cultures in West Africa and further work would need to be conducted on other cultures, Gibson predicts that a similar pattern would emerge.


Howard, A. J. and Gibson M.A. Frequency-dependent female genital cutting behaviour confers evolutionary fitness benefits. Nature Ecology & Evolution. (2017)