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Despite a global ban on female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and extensive advocacy campaigns and grassroots efforts to eradicate the practice, more than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut, and in a few countries, FGM/C rates are on the rise. In others, however, rates have fallen dramatically—and worldwide the trend is towards less cutting. What’s to account for the decreases in FGM/C? In a new paper with Sarah Dykstra and Ben Crisman we look at one of the success stories, Burkina Faso, and what it tells us about the role of legal reform in the process.

Burkina Faso has seen a long history of grassroots activism around FGM/C that began in the 1970s, culminating in a legal ban against the practice in 1996. Using data from the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), we test for whether the ban decreased the likelihood of girls being cut in the country, and we find evidence for a substantial drop in likelihood after the passage of the law. Our estimate is that the law prevented 237,591 girls from being cut.

Where does this new finding leave us? Perhaps it’s more useful to start with what conclusions we shouldn’t jump to. First, our paper doesn’t show that law always works unilaterally to shift social norms and practices surrounding FGM/C, or that a similar law would have had the same effect in another context. But the analysis does suggest that, at least in the right circumstances, laws criminalizing FGM/C can act as powerful tools in the arsenals of those seeking to eradicate the practice.

Our findings are consistent with several other papers demonstrating the impact law can have in improving outcomes for women and girls, from Ethiopia’s inheritance law reform, which improved women’s labor outcomes, to legal reform’s tied to increased education for girls and improved maternal health. Again, that’s not to say legal reform always works—child marriage laws have a decidedly mixed record, for example—but in the right context they can help drive change.

And evidence shows that legal shifts not only matter at a national level but also at an international one; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is linked to the passage of national laws improving women’s rights, and the 2016 Women, Business and the Law report shows that countries are more likely to introduce laws against domestic violence following international and regional human rights conventions and campaigns.

All of this suggests that the law’s ability to shift gender norms and practices—whether at the national or international level—should not be dismissed out of hand. The lobbying and advocacy that goes into making gender-progressive laws a reality is paying off; these laws are playing a part in creating improved outcomes for women and girls. Through our Gender and Development Program, we will continue to explore the connections between international policymaking, national legal reform, and gender norms and practices. Stay tuned for more.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.