By Hannah van der Ham
Female genital mutilation (FGM) involves the “partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons.” Since it creates physical and mental risk to millions of girls and women worldwide, the elimination of the practice is now specifically included in the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development goals. However, eliminating FGM often proves to be a big challenge.
In Egypt, FGM was officially criminalized in 2008. However, the practice continues to affect more than 90% of the female population. In order to understand the persistence of FGM, it is useful to see it not just as part of the culture but also as an informal institution. As Helmke and Levitsky explain, informal institutions are a form of shared expectations, rather than shared values. Not living up to these expectations will lead to sanctions. In Egypt, girls who do not undergo FGM will often not be eligible for marriage, which could lead to economic insecurity in the future. Also, parents risk social exclusion. In addition to this, the enforcement of the formal law has not been very strong. Consequently, there is a very strong incentive for parents to comply with the informal institution and not a very strong incentive to comply with the formal law. Therefore, the outcomes are divergent and the informal institution is competing with the formal one.
It is important to differentiate between formal and informal institutions in this case, because they are likely to have different patterns of change. Whereas changing the formal institution required legal changes and strong enforcement, the change in informal institutions requires lowering the costs of non-compliance. Thus, societies need be created where parents are not at risk of social exclusion and daughters can be married to men even if they are not cut. This is a tipping model: if enough people do not comply the rules, no one will have to comply anymore. If enough resources are dedicated to this, the practice can be eliminated, as has already been demonstrated with the elimination of foot binding practices in China.