Journal Article

The role of older women in contesting norms associated with female genital mutilation/cutting in Senegambia: A factorial focus group analysis

Social norms theory has become prominent framework for understanding the perpetuation of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and has influenced the design of interventions aimed at stopping the practice. Theoretical advances draw attention to the fact that FGM/C is often upheld by multiple interconnected norms that may vary and shift over time, offering a potential resource for social transformation. Analyzing focus group data from Senegambian women, the questions we explore are: What are the constellation of norms associated with FGM/C? When are existing practices and norms being contested, and how does this reflect prevailing structures of power and authority? Our research identifies four overarching themes: 1) pressure to conform with FGM/C arising from sanctions such as ostracization, and moral norms linked to the embodiment of virtue; 2) upholding tradition as a means of venerating ancestors; 3) upholding social hierarchy by displaying respect for elders; and 4) shifting beliefs about the healthful vs. harmful nature of FGM/C. While strong value is placed on upholding tradition, there is also an appreciation that elements of tradition must be revised to meet fluctuating realities, including the novel threat of HIV infection. Moreover, older women are uniquely positioned to realize the dual goal of honoring tradition while negotiating change. Rather than resisting change, we find that some older women express an openness to reassessing norms and practices as they seek solutions to maintaining the physical well-being, moral integrity and cultural identity of girls in their families. Moreover, given the authority of older women over younger women, they also have power to negotiate change. By recognizing older women as potential change leaders, and drawing on variability and fluidity in social norms, it may be increasingly possible to design interventions that will shape possibilities for action and accelerate abandonment of FGM/C without undermining the cultural value of tradition.