Media Briefings

ETHOPIAN WOMEN’S TRUE ATTITUDES TOWARDS FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION: New survey evidence

  • Published Date: March 2015

Social pressure to conform may have led researchers to underestimate approval of female genital mutilation (FGM) among women in Ethiopia, according to a new study to be presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2015 annual conference. Researchers Elisabetta De Cao and Clemens Lutz found that 47% of uneducated women were in favour of FGM if asked using a technique designed to elicit truthful responses to sensitive questions. If asked directly, only 31% of the uneducated women said they were in favour of FGM.

The authors questioned 848 women using a method known as a ‘list experiment’, designed to remove worries that they would be judged by giving an answer that others might disapprove of. The survey was administered to measure the success of an NGO educational programme, and the result implies that previous analysis of similar interventions may have overestimated their impact.

In Ethiopia, about 74-80% of women are estimated to undergo the painful and unnecessary procedure even though it has been made illegal and is worldwide recognised as an extreme form of discrimination and violence. When asked directly whether they approved of FGM, 6% of educated women and 31% of uneducated women were in favour.

But the list experiment technique appears to show that some uneducated women who had been part of the programme hid their true perceptions towards FGM because they felt pressure to misrepresent their views when questioned by researchers.

This has implications for similar evaluations. ‘Measuring a sensitive outcome requires a proper survey design’, the authors note. ‘The technique adopted in this research is a relatively simple approach that could be added to many surveys to overcome the identification problems related to sensitive issues.’

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Research by Elisabetta De Cao and Clemens Lutz at the University of Oxford and University of Groningen suggests that uneducated people in Ethiopia may misrepresent their attitudes towards Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) because they fear the social pressure of being judged.

The study to be presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2015 annual conference, attempts to uncover women’s true attitudes towards FGM in Ethiopia, a country where about 74-80% of women are estimated to undergo the painful and unnecessary procedure even though it has been made illegal and is worldwide recognised as an extreme form of discrimination and violence.

The study uses survey data collected on 848 women in the Afar region during 2012, including some women who had been targeted by a particular NGO intervention, designed to educate people on the harm caused by FGM.

The research aims to identify attitudes of women towards FGM. But eliciting truthful answers when studying sensitive issues, such as attitudes towards FGM, is challenging. If asked directly, individuals may lie or refuse to answer, leading to misleading results. To account for this problem, this study uses an innovative survey technique called the ‘list experiment’ to measure the attitudes. A list experiment is an indirect way of asking a sensitive question, so that the respondent may reveal a truthful response.

The research finds that educated women were less in favour of FGM compared with uneducated ones (6% versus 47%). Interestingly, uneducated women who had been part of the programme were more likely to hide their true perceptions towards FGM. They feel increased pressure to misrepresent their views when questioned by researchers. If asked directly, 31% of the uneducated women were in favour of FGM, compared with 47% if asked indirectly (through the list experiment). This suggests that the intervention was less beneficial than results previously indicate.

The authors said that is possible that intervention by the NGO increases the social pressure felt by uneducated women and results in a stronger incentive to give the answer expected by researchers on this sensitive issue.

This is an interesting result for studies that aim at evaluating programme impact. Measuring a sensitive outcome requires a proper survey design. The technique adopted in this research is a relatively simple approach that could be added to many surveys to overcome the identification problems related to sensitive issues. The authors are currently performing further investigations to see if these results persist in a follow-up of the same sample of Ethiopian women.

ENDS


Elisabetta De Cao is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Health Service Economics and Organisation and Associate Fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford.

Clemens Lutz is Associate Professor of Small Business Economics, University of Groningen.