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Unprogrammed Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

Brian Engelsma, Gerry Mackie, and Brandon Merrell

Between 1950 and 2000, the rate of Female Genital Cutting / Mutilation (FGM/C) sharply declined in some African countries but remained high in others. What historical, political, and societal factors explain why some areas have abandoned the practice while elsewhere it persists? To answer this question, we develop a new cross-national measure of how FGM/C prevalence has changed over time. Using survey responses from nearly 600,000 women in 24 African countries, we estimate the proportion of women each birth-cohort country who eventually underwent FGM/C. This new measure enables us to evaluate several theoretical mechanisms that may facilitate abandonment. Our results are consistent with theories that explain FGM/C abandonment as a social norm as well as theories tying the practice to historical and colonial legacies. Finally, we provide suggestive evidence that efforts to criminalize FGM/C will vary in intent or effectiveness based on each country's level of political stability and regime type.