Most of the estimated 125 million girls and women living today throughout 29 countries were victims of genital mutilation by the age of 15, making it a global violation of human rights. Intervention agencies designed to stop the highly traditional cutting practice have been largely focused on identifying communities, but new research conducted at the University of Zurich in Sudan reveals female genital mutilation is less of a social norm and more of a family tradition. The findings, published in the journal Science, are likely to influence the direction of future prevention programs.

For the study, researchers first focused on communities in Sudan, where prevalence rates are among the highest. They tracked which girls were victims of genital mutilation by following an observable sign: Henna markings are often applied to a girl’s feet when she is cut; some are cut as young as infanthood. They discovered a pattern; communities were no longer practicing it to fit in with other community members, but instead, they were cutting their girls based on personal values. The researchers described these practices as becoming heterogeneous, meaning they varied from family to family.

"We found that cutting and non-cutting families essentially live door-to-door,” said the study’s co-author Charles Efferson, a researcher at Zurich University, in a press release. “The tremendous heterogeneity we observed suggests that coordination is not that important. Even if it plays some role, families apparently also respond to other private concerns and values that vary a lot across families and individuals."

According to the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation involves intentionally altering or causing injury to a girl’s genitals for no medical reason or health benefits. It was put into practice to control and suppress a woman’s sexuality and ensure virginity before marriage. Complications are common considering the procedures aren’t typically performed by a doctor or health care professional. In only 18 percent of the cases does a health care provider carry out the mutilation. Oftentimes, this results in severe bleeding, problems urinating, later infections, cysts, infertility, problems during childhood, and an increased risk of newborn deaths.

Attitudes toward female genital mutilation can differ tremendously from one family to another, which makes it a difficult problem to tackle. However, the study’s findings suggest if families against the practice are used to convince other families within their community to abandon the practice, their daughters would have a better chance of growing up healthy.

"Because there's so much individual heterogeneity, public declarations run the risk of simply collecting the families already inclined to abandon cutting,” the study’s lead author Sonja Vogt said in a press release. “A declaration could then have little or no effect on the remaining families in a community because these families value cutting for reasons unrelated to coordination."

Source: Vogt S and Efferson C. Science. 2015.