BURKINA FASO: How to End Female Circumcisions

There are some 130 million women and girls in the world that have undergone genital mutilation and no less than the United Nations has mobilized to encourage nations to abolish the practice. The paradox of female circumcisions is that while they're performed in male-dominated societies, they're often carried out by women. The reason, most experts believe, comes down to cultural norms.

In societies were female genital cutting is practiced, women believe that men prefer circumcised wives because circumcised wives are more faithful or that man see the circumcised clitoris as being more aesthetically pleasing. This logic leads to the grisly conclusion that to attract the best husband, female offspring need to have their genitals "touched-up."

Now, two economists, Tatyana Chesnokova and Rhema Vaithianathan of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, show that in the West African nation of Burkina Faso this indeed is the case: Genitally mutilated women find richer husbands, and, contrary to popular belief, have more surviving children than uncircumcised women.

So does this mean that despite its apparent cruelty, the benefits of genital mutilation in a society like Burkina Faso outweigh the costs? (It's important to note that genital cutting was outlawed in Burkina Faso in 1996. Still, it continues to be widely practiced.)

Chesnokova and Vaithianathan argue that this need not be the case. Building a model of the marriage market in Burkina Faso based on their previous results, they show that the number of circumcisions in society is based on the cost of circumcisions to women and the benefit they gain from marrying a rich man as a result. What's key here is that the value of circumcisions to men does not play a role in determining the number of circumcisions. So, even if the value to men is less than the cost of circumcision to women, parents will want to have their daughters circumcised. That's what economists call a market failure. As Chesnokova and Vaithianathan write:

The individual incentives to invest to secure [a rich husband] is higher than its social benefit.

One way to eradicate female circumcisions then would be to increase the costs of attaining a circumcision relative to the benefit of marrying a rich man. Unfortunately, this is likely to be unfeasible because the payoff of marrying a rich husband is very large so in societies were economic opportunities for women are nearly nonexistent, the existence of even a relatively few rich men could be enough of an incentive for circumcisions.

Another solution, Chesnokova and Vaithianathan propose, is to change expectations. Suppose the number of circumcised women falls below the number of rich men, then uncircumcised women start to have a better chance of finding rich husbands, reducing the incentives to circumcise. The researchers argue that even somewhat weak regulation that still pushes down the number of circumcised women (helped along by expanded economic opportunities for women) could cause a cascading effect which would push down the number of circumcised women in future generations to zero.

The upshot of this is that while there is an obvious human rights case for ending female genital mutilation, there appears to be an economic case as well.


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DATE: 30/12/2007

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