Social Norms and FGM

FGM is often a social norm

Key Findings

There is growing evidence that community-based social-norms programmes appear to be the most effective strategy for catalysing shifts in FGM-related attitudes and behaviours. There are many different understandings of what social norms are, but they tend to converge on the following elements:

Social expectations

A social norm is constructed by one’s beliefs about what others do and by one’s beliefs about what others think one should do

Reference group

Group members tend to hold the expectations of one another

Social influence

Maintained by approval/disapproval among the reference group or one’s belief in the legitimacy of others’ expectations

Social benefits

Positive sanctions (including belonging and marriageability) are weighed against negative sanctions (including ridicule and rejection)

How social norms operate

There is an increasing consensus that FGM is often a social norm or 'socially upheld behavioural rule'. This means that everyone does it, or people believe that everyone does it. Individuals practise it because they have never questioned behaving otherwise, they receive social benefits from conforming to the norm, or they fear social sanctions from others for deviating from the norm.  Even when the adoption of FGM is recent, people can still be pushed to conform to another group's social norms.

Determining whether FGM is a social norm in a particular situation is important for designing programmes because, when it is, it is difficult for individuals or specific families to stop the practice on their own because of the social sanctions associated with deviating from the norm. Families will be encouraged to stop cutting their daughters if they are convinced that a sufficiently large number of other families do not practise FGM, or are ready to abandon the practice.

Research and Resources