Lindsey Novak is a PhD candidate at the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota. She is on the job market this year.
For better or for worse, social norms have profound influence on many of the decisions we make—from political to personal. These norms can be particularly influential when it comes to making decisions surrounding child rearing, including the decision parents make to participate in the practice of female genital cutting (FGC). Parents living in communities that practice FGC—located primarily in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—decide whether or not their daughter will undergo FGC based on social pressure and the perceived costs and benefits of adhering to or deviating from the social norm.
The practice has no known medical benefits, and it is associated with a wide range of health complications, both physical and psychological. Women who undergo FGC are more than twice as likely to experience birthing complications (Jones et al. 1999), and are 25 percent more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases (Wagner 2014). In addition, women who have undergone FGC are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (Dorkenoo 1999; Behrendt & Moritz 2005). These physical and psychological health complications make working both in and outside of the household more difficult.
Is Female Genital Cutting a Social Coordination Norm?
Despite these harmful effects, approximately 3 million girls undergo FGC each year (WHO 2012). The prevailing theory, put forth by Mackie (1996), is that FGC is a social coordination norm—that is, no household will deviate from the norm unless a substantial proportion of the community also agrees to abandon the practice. Under this theory, if a sufficient proportion (what is “sufficient” may vary by community) of households agree to abandon FGC, then a tipping point is reached and the rate of FGC will fall to zero.
Yet recent evidence shows that the implications of this theory do not hold up to empirical scrutiny. If FGC is a social coordination norm, the persistence of the practice should be largely attributable to the community; in West Africa, however, 87% of the variation in the persistence of FGC can be attributed to individual- and household-level factors (Bellemare, Novak, and Steinmetz 2015). Furthermore, the social coordination norm theory predicts that rates of FGC at the community level should be either very close to zero or very close to one. But a study in Sudan found rates of cutting at the community level that were almost never close to zero or one (Efferson et al. 2015).
A Theory of Heterogeneous Thresholds
In my job market paper I propose a new theory, and test that theory with data from Burkina Faso. I show that the rate of FGC within the community certainly affects parents’ decisions; however, each household has a different threshold, where I define the household’s threshold to be the rate of cutting in the community at which the household is indifferent between practicing and not practicing FGC. If the rate is higher than the household’s threshold, the household will practice FGC, and the household will refrain from practicing FGC if the rate is lower. While this may seem like a simple relaxation of an implicit assumption from the prevailing theory, I go on to show that this heterogeneity has important implications for how and why FGC persists. Drawing on Thomas Schelling’s 1978 model of critical mass, I show that if households have heterogeneous preferences, a tipping point in the rate of FGC is not guaranteed, and there may be stable interior equilibria in the rate of FGC at the community level.
Using data from the Demographic and Health Surveys that includes women born between 1949 and 1995, I show that households in Burkina Faso do in fact have heterogeneous thresholds. I further show that in some communities, a tipping point in the rate of FGC exists, and that point has likely been reached in many of those communities.
Observing a household’s threshold is not possible because the threshold is a function of household member preferences for FGC and bargaining power. Additionally, household members may not be able to articulate their individual threshold. I am, however, able to create bounds on a household’s threshold. I observe the rate of FGC in the daughter’s community and cohort (hence forth, “community-cohort”) as well as the daughter’s FGC status. I show that for a household that chooses to practice FGC, the rate of FGC in the daughter’s community-cohort is an upper bound for the household’s threshold. Similarly, if the household abstains from practicing FGC, the rate of FGC serves as a lower bound for the household’s threshold.
Figure 1 shows the cumulative distribution function (CDF) of household thresholds within Burkina Faso. The CDF for households that refrain from cutting their daughter is a lower bound for the true distribution of household thresholds, while the CDF for those who do cut their daughter is an upper bound. Thus, the true CDF of household thresholds will lie somewhere in between the two CDFs in Figure 1. The CDF approaches the 45-degree line from below, and I show that this suggests that there is a tipping point in the rate of FGC in Burkina Faso, and that tipping point is between 0.7 and 0.95. This is encouraging because it means we should see the rate of FGC in Burkina Faso continue to decline.
What Does This Mean for Policy?
These findings have important implications for the types of policies that should be introduced. If FGC were a social coordination norm, NGOs and activists should concentrate on interventions that change community-level preferences for FGC. Much programming surrounding FGC is currently conducted in this way. But if FGC is not a social coordination norm, but rather (as my results suggest) households have heterogeneous thresholds, these village-level interventions may have little to no effect on the rate of FGC in communities. Instead, since thresholds are heterogeneous, the set of potential policy interventions is dramatically broadened. Because households are able to deviate from the norm without waiting for a critical mass of community members to join them, interventions that target individual- or household-level preferences could be more effective.
With this in mind, I investigate how various groups within the community interact with the norm differently. Specifically, I look at whether households in which parents have been educated are more likely to deviate from the norm when faced with a high rate of FGC than are uneducated parents. For a given rate of FGC within the girl’s community-cohort, a girl who has educated parents is 20 percent less likely to undergo FGC.
Going forward, focusing interventions that aim to change a household’s or individual’s threshold as well carefully considering the targeting of those interventions is key. These interventions should aim to incentivize households to deviate from the social norm when a larger proportion of their community is still practicing. These interventions could empower people to stand up to social pressure or alter the perceived costs and benefits associated with FGC. These are potential pathways through which educated parents are less likely to practice FGC. Additionally, interventions that discuss the potential harmful physical and psychological effects of FGC could increase its perceived costs, and interventions that debunk ideas about religious edicts that mandate FGC could reduce the perceived benefits of FGC.