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Economics Is Why FGM Persists (Oxford Seminar On The Elephants In The Room)

November 23, 2017

17 November 2017: A workshop entitled Elephants in the Room: Hurdles – and Hope – for Ending Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) challenged us to consider some ‘elephants in the room’ in how we think about that particular form of gendered physical and psychological abuse.  The event, co-sponsored by the International Gender Studies Centre at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, and the UnCUT/VOICES Press, enabled those present to share thoughts on aspects of FGM which may be both blatantly obvious and difficult to discuss. My contribution, summarised below, was on the Economics of FGM.

The ‘four Es’ of Eradicating FGM are Engagement, Education, Enforcement and Economics.

But perhaps there is also a fifth ‘E’ – because in the context of this seminar Economics is the Elephant in the room….

This post is a preliminary foray – hopefully to be followed later by more detailed and fully referenced exploration – into the relevance of economics to the eradication of FGM.

Commodified bodies
Of course FGM is not the ‘only’ way in which the female body is commodified.  Child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) also involve the sale of women and girls as chattels, as does human trafficking (most often of females, and thought to be one of the biggest long-established global ‘businesses’).

All these abuses are instances of patriarchy incarnate – the literal imposition of (some) men’s wills on female bodies.  All are about women and girls as chattels or commodities, ‘owned’ and to be sold on the open market for whatever sum is achievable.

Until recently there has been little emphasis on the wider economics of FGM.  It is generally recognised that in some communities the ‘cutters’ (mutilators) enjoy high status and considerable income to older women (not all cutters are women), so finding alternative and attractive employment opportunities is difficult.

Ownership of resources (and power)
Money often equates to power: FGM is a route to financial supremacy.  For instance, for Sande Society cutters it provides not only financial leverage but also real power within some communities – subject always to the say-so of the (male) Poro leaders. (Women who are not ‘cut’ may not be permitted by male chiefs to own land because they are deemed still to be minors; but conversely even senior women generally have no rights to decide which men may own resources.)

Similarly, FGM followed by marriage to ‘appropriate’ men can provide assurance of future care for a girl/woman’s parents in old age. The ‘guarantee’ that a future bride is ‘pure’ is provided by the evidence of intact FGM suturing. The mechanism for securing the flow of funds intergenerationally is also linked to appropriate marriage.

In most traditional communities the interests of the group as a whole are supreme; little or no significance in the rights of the individual is acknowledged, or even recognised.

Beyond these matters there is often little consideration of the economics of FGM.

Pioneering activists
The idea that economics is fundamental to the eradication of FGM is not new. In 1994 one of the leading pioneers in this field, the late Efua Dorkenoo proposed that international development aid should be reduced by 50% if the recipient country could not demonstrate proven measures to abolish FGM, a practice which, she pointed out, places extra burdens on (already) inadequately resourced health care and delivery.

Two decades later, in 2014, Navi Pillay made the point that eradicating FGM means freedom from pain and trauma, which releases women to develop talents and skills to the benefit of both themselves and their families and communities.

Impacts at every level
Slowly, then, it is beginning to be seen that FGM has wide economic implications as well as direct personal and health impacts.  Some studies of the damaging effects of FGM on mothers and babies at birth and in the early years have suggested economic costs, and similar harm such as rape has begun to be costed by, for instance, Lori Post in the USA.  Now the economic focus is widening to the group, community and (inter-)national level.

Who benefits from FGM?
Those who perform FGM (‘cutters’) are often paid and gain status – sometimes very substantial sums of money and big influence in their social group.  (It follows that trading ‘cutter’ status for eg herding a small flock of goats may not appeal.)  Fathers who sell their ‘pure’ daughters for a substantial dowry / bride-price benefit. Elderly parents may also benefit from good care (a sort-of pension) because their daughter’s arranged marriage was ‘good’ and their son-in-law can provide support.  Husbands and/or wives who purchase a girl post-FGM for domestic service and the production of more children and, obviously, if there was a big social occasion at the time of the FGM, those who provide what westerners call leisure services (catering etc), will also benefit.

Who loses from FGM?
The biggest loser in the direct sense is the girl or woman who is ‘cut’.  Her education is probably thereby brought to an end, she is often at risk of premature child-bearing, and her health (even life) is usually compromised.  Likewise, her children are at risk, because her health is damaged so child care is more difficult, and also because if she dies her infant children are also at significant risk of death if there is no-one to care for them.  The local community and wider society also suffer because women in poor health cannot contribute as they should to the economy; and already challenged community, health, social and legal services across that society are unnecessarily stretched.

Who pays to eradicate FGM?
Local activists are the most vulnerable in terms of failure of support resourcing; they often ‘work’ for little or no recompense and their goodwill efforts may be squandered if there is no back-up.  Many state, non-governmental, national and international / global services have to allocate scarce resources to this issue. The economy suffers at every level from local to global, and families are poorer than they would otherwise be, because of necessarily higher taxation (and other costs) which could be avoided.

Approaches to FGM eradication
FGM is a social epidemic; it requires epidemiological analysis.

The Public Health model is ideal as an approach to encompass all four ‘Es’ of FGM eradication.  It provides for every aspect from personal and health care, via prevention and education, to enforcement and political policies.  There is till a long way to go however before this model can be articulated with maximum effect: the multiple approaches which must gel are not yet cohesive.

Nonetheless the socio-economic structures which FGM eradication, like the eradication of other gendered violence (patriarchy incarnate) must address, are becoming clearer.  On one matter there is already considerable certainty:

FGM is socially contagious, but it is not caused by viruses or natural environmental hazards.  It is therefore particularly open at at least some levels to direct economic leverage.  As we all know, money quite often speaks louder than words.  Budgetary constraints often carry more weight than ethical considerations.

If human agents (people) can be persuaded to stop inflicting FGM it would instantly become history. A better understanding of the economics behind this harmful traditional practice provides one lever towards that end.


Read more about FGM and Economics

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Your Comments on this topic are welcome.  
Please post them in the box which follows these announcements…..

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Books by Hilary Burrage on female genital mutilation

Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective (Hilary Burrage, Ashgate / Routledge 2015).   Full contents and reviews   HERE.

FEMALE MUTILATION: The truth behind the horrifying global practice of female genital mutilation  (Hilary Burrage, New Holland Publishers 2016).   Full contents and reviews   HERE.


There is a free FGM hotline for anyone in the UK: 0800 028 3550, or

Details of NHS Specialist Services for FGM here.

More info and posts on FGM here.

Activists, service providers and researchers may like to join the LinkedIn group Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): Information, reports and research, which has several hundred members from around the world.

The (free) #NoFGM Daily News carries reports of all items shared on Twitter that day about FGM – brings many organisations and developments into focus.

Also available to follow at no cost or obligation is the #NoFGM_USA Daily News.

Twitter accounts:          @NoFGM_UK  @NoFGMBookUK @FemaleMutlnBook  @FGMStatement  @NoFGM_USA @NoFGM_Kenya  @NoFGM_France  @GuardianEndFGM [tag for all: #NoFGM] and @StopMGM.

Facebook page: #NoFGM – a crime against humanity

Email contact: via Hilary


[NB The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, which has a primary focus on FGM, is clear that in formal discourse any term other than ‘mutilation’ concedes damagingly to the cultural relativists – though the terms employed may of necessity vary in informal discussion with those who by tradition use alternative vocabulary. See the Feminist Statement on the Naming and Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation,  The Bamako Declaration: Female Genital Mutilation Terminology and the debate about Anthr/Apologists on this website.]


This article concerns approaches to the eradication specifically of FGM.  I am also categorically opposed to MGM, but that is not the focus of this particular piece.

Anyone wishing to offer additional comment on more general considerations around infant and juvenile genital mutilation is asked please to do so via these relevant dedicated threads.

Discussion of the general issues re M/FGM will not be published unless they are posted on these dedicated pages. Thanks.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 25, 2017 07:42

    Hilary, clearly, we need a workshop whose main theme is ECONOMICS. You’ve reminded me of a chart in the study of Eritrea by Diana Kuring. See

  2. November 25, 2017 16:22

    Another couple of observations. Under ‘pioneers’, Joy Keshi Ashibuogwu (now Joy Keshi Walker) conceived of an exhibition of paintings against FGM whose catalogue in 1998 in Nigeria appeared under the slogan, “The Suffering, the Sorrow, the Setback,” whereas the setback was defined as economic and resulting from the deliberate wounding of half the population. The US also tied foreign aid other than humanitarian to governments’ efforts to end FGM.

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