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Research Insight: Female Genital Cutting and the Slave Trade


We test the hypothesis that the slave trade was one of the contributing factors for the spread of female genital cutting (FGC). In the Red-Sea route female slaves were sold as concubines and infibulation was used to ensure chastity. We show that differential exposure of ethnic groups to the Red-Sea route explains differential adoption of the practice today, highlighting the importance of identity in its persistence.

Female genital cutting (FGC) comprises all the procedures involving removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs. More than 200 million women are cut worldwide. The custom is present in 30 African and Middle Eastern countries and, in some areas, it is almost universal: cut women are 98% in Somalia, 96% in Guinea, 93% in Djibouti and 91% in Egypt and Sierra Leone. FGC is a harmful practice under several dimension. First, it may have serious health effects, both at the moment of cutting (e.g. haemorrhage, infection and septic shock, mortality) and in the long run (e.g. birth-related complications). Second, it affects girls’ educational achievement through a loss in the days of schooling and its potential association with early marriage. Finally, given that FGC is generally performed on young girls without their consent, FGC is considered a human rights violation and its elimination is now part of the Sustainable Development Goal 2015-2020. We aim at addressing the following research questions: i) How did FGC originate? ii) Can current differences in FGC prevalence be traced back to the origins of the slave trade?

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