On the Economic Origins of Female Genital Cutting

48 Pages Posted: 14 Nov 2017 Last revised: 29 Aug 2018

Date Written: August 29, 2018


Infibulation – the narrowing of the vaginal opening after the removal of the clitoris and labia – is the most invasive form of female genital cutting. The extent to which it is practiced varies widely within Africa. This paper studies the historical origins of this variation by testing the anthropological theory that a particular form of preindustrial economic production – subsisting on pastoralism – favored the adoption of this custom. The hypothesis is based on the fact that pastoralism was characterized by heightened paternity uncertainty due to frequent and often extended periods of male absence from the settlement, implying larger payoffs to controlling female sexuality. Using within-country variation across 80,000 women in 12 African countries, the paper first documents that women from historically more pastoral societies are significantly more likely to be infibulated today. Extending the analysis to a set of 500,000 individuals in 34 countries, the paper then shows that formerly pastoral societies also exhibit a broader set of customs and norms that restrict female sexuality: female descendants of pastoral societies (i) are more constrained in their mobility outside their home; (ii) hold more restrictive norms about female sexuality; and (iii) behave less promiscuously. I argue and show empirically that the mechanism behind these patterns is indeed male absenteeism, rather than male dominance per se. Overall, the results suggest that contemporary variation in constraints on female sexuality can be traced back to a functional relationship between historical economic production and societal customs which have persisted until today.

Keywords: gender inequality, cultural origins, cultural persistence, female genital cutting, female autonomy

JEL Classification: I15, N30, Z13

Suggested Citation

Becker, Anke, On the Economic Origins of Female Genital Cutting (August 29, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract= or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3069684

Anke Becker (Contact Author)

Harvard University ( email )

1875 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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