Recent reviews of intervention efforts aimed at ending female genital cutting (FGC) have concluded that progress to date has been slow, and call for more efficient programs informed by theories on behavior change. Social convention theory, first proposed by Mackie (1996), posits that in the context of extreme resource inequality, FGC emerged as a means of securing a better marriage by signaling fidelity, and subsequently spread to become a prerequisite for marriage for all women. Change is predicted to result from coordinated abandonment in intermarrying groups so as to preserve a marriage market for uncircumcised girls. While this theory fits well with many general observations of FGC, there have been few attempts to systematically test the theory. We use data from a three year mixed-method study of behavior change that began in 2004 in Senegal and The Gambia to explicitly test predictions generated by social convention theory. Analyses of 300 in-depth interviews, 28 focus group discussions, and survey data from 1220 women show that FGC is most often only indirectly related to marriageability via concerns over preserving virginity. Instead we find strong evidence for an alternative convention, namely a peer convention. We propose that being circumcised serves as a signal to other circumcised women that a girl or woman has been trained to respect the authority of her circumcised elders and is worthy of inclusion in their social network. In this manner, FGC facilitates the accumulation of social capital by younger women and of power and prestige by elder women. Based on this new evidence and reinterpretation of social convention theory, we suggest that interventions aimed at eliminating FGC should target women's social networks, which are intergenerational, and include both men and women. Our findings support Mackie's assertion that expectations regarding FGC are interdependent; change must therefore be coordinated among interconnected members of social networks.
Published by Elsevier Ltd.