Socio-economic subordination and FGM

Studies have revealed that the socio-economic subordination of women conditions the perpetuation of the practice of FGM (Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies, 2015), and that the more women exercise control over their lives, the more convinced they are that it is necessary to end the practice (UNFPA-UNICEF, 2015). Additionally, the practice of FGM is believed to be linked to factors such as urban or rural residence, economic status and education (UN Women, 2017).

Consequently, some authors argue that the total abandonment of FGM could not occur without the establishment of a movement to abolish gender inequalities, including economic dependency, educational disadvantage and limited opportunities for employment (UN Women, 2016). These authors are grouped under what is known as “modernization theory”.

According to this theory, improving the economic situation of women would decrease the prevalence of FGM by multiple indirect effects:

  • Weakening of traditional family structures
  • Weakening of traditional power structures
  • Women’s access to the labor market
  • Increase of the authority of women when it comes to decision-making
  • Modification of the economic and social roles traditionally assigned to women, and decrease in dependency on FGM and marriage (UN Women, 2017) (UN Women, 2016).

The prevalence of FGM is higher among the poorest households


In most countries, the prevalence of FGM is lower among the wealthiest households:

  • In Mauritania, the prevalence of FGM is 83% among the poorest quintiles, compared to 21% among the richest quintiles
  • In Guinea-Bissau, this ratio stands at 41% to 28%
  • In Ivory Coast, 32% to 9% (see annex 1).

Furthermore, wealth can be associated with a lower level of support for the continuation of the practice: the lower the wealth quintiles, the greater the support for the continuation of FGM:

  • In Guinea, 79% of women aged 15 to 49 among the poorest quintiles wish to continue the practice, compared to 53% among the richest quintiles
  • In Somalia, these figures rise to 78% to 47% (see Annex 3).

Thus, according to this data, the improvement in economic status would indeed lead to a decline in the practice (UN Women, 2017).

The prevalence of FGM is higher among households with a lower level of education

With the exception of Sudan and Somalia, the prevalence of FGM is higher among girls whose mothers are uneducated. The prevalence decreases as the mother’s education level increases:

  • In Eritrea, 40% of girls whose mothers have secondary or higher education have undergone FGM, compared to almost 70% of girls whose mothers have no education
  • In Guinea-Bissau, barely 10% of girls whose mothers have secondary or higher education have undergone FGM, compared to almost 50% of girls whose mothers are uneducated (see Annex 2).

The level of education would therefore facilitate the abandonment of the practice, especially since studies have shown that education and vocational training reduce the prevalence of FGM (UN Women Egypt, 2019).

This could partly be explained by the fact that more educated women are more exposed to and more inclined to receive awareness messages. (UN Women, 2016)

Marriage is a precondition for the physical survival of women

In societies where patriarchal domination and the economic dependence of women are very important, and where educational opportunities are low, marriage is seen by families as the only way to provide girls with long term economic security. Indeed, being a woman and a mother is the only way to be recognized as a full member of society. In other words, the social status and economic security of women depend on their roles as mothers and wives.

Marrying and having children is therefore necessary for their economic and social security. Without a husband, it is difficult to access land, livestock, or a cash income. In addition, having children makes it possible to respond to the community’s expectations of motherhood and femininity (UNFPA-UNICEF, 2015).

Therefore, finding a husband is the main concern of families in order to ensure the financial security of their daughter in the long term. In order to do this, you have to follow the rules of marriage carefully, and FGM is one of them: to get married, you have to be cut. Failure to meet this standard would bring shame and social exclusion (UNFPA-UNICEF, 2019).

As long as FGM is a prerequisite for marrying to ensure long term economic security, FGM will continue to be practiced, regardless of the awareness messages highlighting the negative health consequences, or whether it is not compulsory according to religion. Nonetheless, studies demonstrate that the practice of FGM and early marriage decreases as educational opportunities for girls increase, and decreases further among middle-class, urban and educated families (Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies, 2015).

Why does FGM condition eligibility for marriage in certain societies?

FGM ensures the virginity of the girl, which is very important in societies where virginity before marriage is vital in order to ensure the honor of the family. Indeed, not being a virgin on your wedding day brings shame on the family and social exclusion from the community. “Patriarchal economic arrangements” are therefore concluded in order to ensure the eligibility for marriage of the girls, but also the honor of the family (Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies, 2015).

A need for further research

The role of economics in the practice of FGM is complex and it is difficult to study precisely how social and economic factors affect the risk of FGM (UN Women, 2016). Therefore, care should be taken when interpreting data on the links between FGM & the level of education or socio-economic status. These correlations may indeed be due to other variables, and characteristics may overlap: for example, more educated women are more likely to live in an urban area or in a wealthier household (UN Women, 2017).

In addition, studies demonstrating the role of education and economic development on the prevalence of FGM overlook the influence of the broader social context. These studies focus on the individual aspect whilst individual choices are conditioned by complex and well defined socio-cultural systems, influenced and constrained by wider social networks, and by social norms specific to the community.

Finally, studies have demonstrated the contradictory effects of economic development projects on the prevalence rate of FGM in certain contexts.

In Sudan, for instance, FGM is primarily a distinctive practice carried out by the upper classes to mark their class affiliation. The practice has spread to the rest of society as a result of an assimilation process, the most disadvantaged classes seeking to reproduce the practices of the wealthiest classes. (UN Women, 2017).

FGM can increase, or remain stable, if economic development projects strengthen patriarchal relationships and the economic dependence of women rather than empower women (UN Women, 2019).

For example, projects that strengthen the role of men as the heads of households and that do not offer alternatives to marriage for women, may have negative consequences for women and affect the prevalence of FGM (Mediterranenan Institute of Gender Studies, 2015).

Economic development is therefore not a solution in itself if the projects do not strengthen the economic and social autonomy of women.

« The Community of Practice on Female Genital Mutilation » is part of the « Building Bridges between Africa and Europe to tackle FGM » project, supported by the « UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of FGM ».
The project is coordinated by AIDOS in partnership with GAMS Belgium.

The views expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UNFPA, UNICEF or any other agency or organization.

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