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An Economic Deficit Index for FGM? Human Capital, Sustainable Development And Land

September 28, 2020

FAWCO is an American / International women’s voluntary organisation which promotes peace and international goodwill.  This year FAWCO has chosen to address issues around FGM (female genital mutilation), so it was good to talk via the internet with members yesterday about the connections between economics and FGM. There is now some general recognition of the costs which would accrue if the health consequences of FGM were properly addressed, but still little acknowledgement of the multiple other economic and resource costs and implications of this cruel practice. 

Recent years have seen the creation of a number of public health and policy indicators for specific factors which demonstrate the wellness or otherwise of particular groups within societies.  

Now, I suggest, is the time to extend that trend to include an index for the economic impact of female genital mutilation and maybe other traditional / harmful practices. 

Perhaps if we measure the economic impact ‘as well as’ the harm to real human beings, more politicians and policy makers will sit up and take notice?

I have written several times before about ‘the economics of FGM‘, so to take the current discussion forward this time I examined some less frequently considered factors which seem to be relevant to the interface of FGM (and other gendered / traditional harmful practices) and economics.

I chose to look at four groups of countries, actually a fairly random selection from those possible:

  • Seven countries from the ‘developing’ world which have an incidence of FGM ranging from 10% to 90% of Types 1 and/or 2 FGM: Egypt, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Tanzania (this last country selected because FAWCO members had a few weeks previously read the book  Among the Maasai by Juliet Cutler, an account which includes reference to FGM of her work as a volunteer teacher in Tanzania).
  • Seven ‘first world’ countries where the incidence of FGM is very low, and predominantly as a result of the diaspora from other locations:  Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, U.K., and U.S.A.
  • Four ‘developing’ countries with a high incidence of FGM Type 3:  Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan;   and
  • Three countries in the Middle East where FGM is known to occur, but prevalence is uncertain:  Iraq, Iran and Pakistan.  very little relevant data is available for these last three locations, but this too is significant.  Despite some researchers’ heroic efforts, we don’t know enough about FGM and other socio-economic / heath factors in these countries.

This is only a very approximate exercise. I simply wanted to see how much advantage or otherwise in respect of matters such as the life chances people in these various groups of countries have, and whether rates of FGM seem to follow the same way.  The data I have cannot demonstrate any causalities, but perhaps they reflect certain realities for those concerned. 

The factors considered here are 

prevalence of FGM as a percentage of women age 15-49, and type of FGM, in each country;

the Human Capital Index as estimated by the World Bank:
including the percent of children who survive to age 5, number of ‘learning- adjusted’ (effective) years of schooling – otherwise referred to as LAYS – which children receive, percent of those surviving at 5 who live to age 60, and percent of children who grow up ‘not stunted‘;

2018 rank order of human development index (advantage) of each country, in the total of 228 nations in the world (which I list here under the general United Nations Human Development Index heading, below); and

the Human Development Index itself:
2017 rank order of the 189 nations for which HDI data is available, Infant Mortality Rate (for every 1000 live births), Maternal Mortality Rate (for every 100,000 women giving birth), and percent of the population literate at age 15 (varying years, between 2016 and 2019) and the Sustainable Development Goals Gender Index for 129 countries in 2019.

These groups of countries are selected rather randomly – I do not purport here to produce a formal analysis of the interplay of a wide range of factors which will influence the life experience of individuals in the various categories.  Nonetheless, I hope that what we see will prompt further questions about how a number of starkly advantageous or disadvantageous influences on a person’s (specifically, a child or a woman’s) life connect in different countries.

Life chances
It is evident that general rates of FGM coincide also with some measures of life chances – countries with higher rates of FGM also have higher rates of maternal and infant mortality and life expectancy, and lower rates of literacy and lower rankings for the Human Capital and Human Development Indices. 

(NB It is important here to note that the prevalence of FGM does not divide neatly by national borders; a tribe or clan which does or does not practise FGM may locate across one or even several national boundaries, so that national statistics on FGM give only the most general reflection of actual incidence at any one locale in that country.)

Despite these only very general indications however, it is evident that countries with a significant prevalence of FGM really cannot ‘afford’ the extra disadvantages which it surely brings. As we see, these nations already face enormous challenges in regard to health, education, social policies and other economic factors. (Indeed. as the recent paper by Batyra et al indicates, socio-economic disadvantage seems to be widening as disparities in the prevalence of FGM also become more marked.)

Gendered factors
We see even in these general data that gender is significant. Nations with significant incidence of FGM are also nations with a lower SDG Gender Index. (SDGs are the United Nations ‘Sustainable Development Goals‘, number 5 of which refers to gender equality and empowerment.)  

The average (mean) global ranking for the ‘first world’ gender indices listed here is 11 out of 129 countries; the mean for the selected countries with types 1 or 2 FGM is 107. We don’t actually know what the ranking for the countries listed with the ‘type 3’ (extremely invasive) FGM might be, if they were included in the ranking.   

Health: a very significant factor here.  Maternal mortality ranges from 8 deaths per 100,000 live births in first world countries, to somewhere around 500+ deaths per 100,000 events in some of the developing world countries listed.  We already know that FGM increases the likelihood of maternal ill-health (morbidity) and death; and we also know that the ‘medicalization‘ of FGM – it being performed by clinicians – does not, and cannot, make it safe.

Land:  moving on from issues specifically around health and well-being, the matter of  gendered land ownership is critical in every corner of our planet, first world or otherwise.  In much of the developing world (and quite large swathes of the first world) the question of who owns what land is difficult to answer.  The land has always been there, and over the centuries many claims, mostly by men, will have been made on it. 

In some parts of the globe however only those considered ‘adult’ may have any stake in the land (and/or perhaps also other property).  In this way any women who has not undergone FGM is excluded (and maybe also any man who has not been ‘circumcised‘*).  A woman is not ‘adult’ until she has experienced this rite of passage.  She may not even be permitted to own any land unless she has been ‘cut’.
[*See also this report on the OHCHR Sande and Poro societies in Liberia, and Onni Gust’s discussion of attaining adulthood, genital mutilation, land and patriarchy in the context of colonialization.]

What next?
We have considered many times on this website the critical connections between FGM and economics.  We know that a girl or woman who has FGM may become simply an object or chattel to be exchanged between men; we know it that FGM has its own local economies, providing paid work for many different people in many different settings; we know it can be very seriously harmful to the health and well-being of women, and especially of mothers and children; we know it often excludes girls and young women from pursuing their education and their employment / professional ambitions.

I would suggest that all these data, where available, offer hard evidence for my view that FGM is an extreme form of patriarchy incarnate.  

But still, despite the efforts of many, FGM continues.  Something more needs to be done, if  we are to gain enough leverage finally to make FGM history.

Perhaps we need an Economic Deficit Index for Female Genital Mutilation

This Index would tell us, for each country or region, how much economic harm is being inflicted by the continuation of FGM:

  • What is the overall labour market damage of FGM?
  • How can the skills of those treating FGM conditions (or conducting medicalized FGM) be put to more productive use?
  • By how much is the care of children affected by FGM? How many young lives are lost because of it, and at what cost?
  • What damage to literacy is caused by FGM?
  • To what extent is gender equality affected by FGM?
  • How much tax and related revenue is lost to given nations because of the harm of FGM?

The questions could go on…  Some research has been undertaken on the costs fully to repair damage already inflicted on those girls and women who have been ‘cut’.  Now we must add to those costs the other economic burdens discussed above, as well, no doubt, as others.

In the internet-enabled event with FAWCO which I was fortunate enough to join, I shared some of these ideas (Youtube video) and we considered several further aspects of the issues.  

And Tharien Van Eck (who is leading the FAWCO FGM initiative) and I produced a post-event list of suggestions around how we, every one of us, can help to stop FGM. 

The next step, I believe, is to become very hard-headed, and to demand that the same economic scrutiny is applied to FGM as to other matters of global economic importance.  My own efforts here are of little consequence, beyond showing that FGM very certainly does have detrimental economic impacts; but I hope it’s a start.

We all know that FGM is a huge cruelty and human rights abuse, but still some people in positions of power lack the will to do enough about this. 

Let’s show them, beyond any doubt, that FGM harms their national wallets ‘as well as’ the wellbeing of their nation’s women.


Read more about FGM and Economics

 Read more about Patriarchy Incarnate

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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

18.04.12 FGM books together IMG_3336 (3).JPG

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 email:

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 / #EndFGM] and @StopMGM.

Facebook page: #NoFGM – a crime against humanity


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