9 December 2015

FGM and Initiation Rites

Guest blog by Sarajane Rodgers.

Not being a part of a culture where female genital mutilation (FGM) is practiced openly, it is hard to understand some of the statistics that are reported in articles on FGM. In a study looking at 858 females in the Kersa district of Ethiopia on their experiences with and perception of FGM, 16.2% experienced pain during sexual intercourse, 16.2% experienced sexual dissatisfaction, 41.3% experienced problems during delivery, and 14.6% experienced infection. What is important to note is that all of these percentages were obtained from those who experienced these complications firsthand. These percentages would be even greater if the women were asked whether they had any close relatives or friends who experienced these problems. However, what seems baffling to someone who is not a part of this culture is that only 23.2% of these women attempted to stop FGM practice.

Being someone who studies psychology, I am very interested in behavior. I want to understand how these percentages fit together. Why would these women who have had these traumatic experiences not step forward to stop FGM? I suppose there could be a wide variety of reasons: fear of being cast out of society for speaking up, the desire for a good husband who would expect his future wife to be cut, agreement with the practice, apathy, lack of education, etc. Once again, I am a student of psychology, so thinking about these things reminds me of the strong influence of initiation rituals on societies across the world.

There have been many cases of hazing in the news over the past few years. Usually these reports refer to university students pledging to various organizations. Though comparing college students taking part in and then promoting binge drinking to women who have undergone an incredibly painful procedure and then have their daughters undergo a similar procedure can seem inappropriate, the basic underlying psychological process is similar.

According to Festinger’s 1957 study, cognitive dissonance theory refers to an internal drive to keep our attitudes, beliefs, and actions in balance. Dissonance arises when these are in contradiction. When this happens, the individual becomes uncomfortable. In order to eliminate this discomfort, he or she must find a way to restore a healthy balance.

Reducing dissonance requires a change. The individual can change his/her attitude, actions, or beliefs so that there is no longer any dissonance between the opposing elements. So what does this all mean? Taking college hazing as an example, if a student believes that drinking alcohol is bad but he/she also wants be a part of a group that requires various drinking initiations, the student will most likely come to one of two conclusions. The student’s beliefs that drinking is bad could prevail and the student would then decide that it isn’t really worth being a part of the group. On the other hand, the student’s desire to be a part of the group could prevail, and the student would decide that maybe drinking alcohol is not the terrible activity that he/she thought it was.

Once an individual makes his/her change, Festinger’s idea of effort justification arises. People will place greater value on an outcome that required more effort in achieving. If a student has the opportunity to be a part of a club by simply signing up or the opportunity to be a part of an organization by passing a series of challenging trials, the student who successfully became a member of the organization with the challenging trials  is going to place greater importance on that achievement. The first achievement was easy – there was no question of whether or not the student would get to be a part of that group. The second achievement did not have that guarantee. There was more to lose, so there was more to gain. 

So how does this relate back to FGM? Consider the women who had gone through FGM and suffered many hardships as a result. They may have experienced infection, pain during intercourse, pain during childbirth, and many other very negative consequences. They may not have wanted to undergo this procedure and been forced into it. If afterwards they outwardly support FGM, their actions would be inconsistent with their beliefs, especially if they were forced into the procedure. In an effort to reconcile the discomfort between their beliefs and actions, something would have to change. Since this procedure is irreversible, a change in belief is easier. For many women, it may be easier to say that “it wasn’t so bad” than to say that “it was terrible and I can’t change the fact that it was done to me.”

For mothers, there is more dissonance that needs to be reconciled. For the women who were married after undergoing FGM as the cultural norm, they are often forced into the position where they must decide whether their daughter undergoes FGM to be eligible for marriage or if their child avoids the pain that many of the mothers had experienced themselves. Taking the desires of the father out of the picture (which may oversimplify the situation but is necessary when focusing in on the psychology of the mother), the mother must decide whether she wants her child to be cut like her and become an accepted member of society or if she wants her child to avoid the pain that she may have experienced. For these women, they have become a part of the in-group and it is oftentimes difficult to decide that they want their children to be a part of the out-group.

So where do you go from there? Fortunately, there is another way of dealing with cognitive dissonance. The acquisition of new information outweighs dissonant beliefs. If a woman thinks that her child will be cast out of society for not conforming to this practice, it is difficult to say no to the practice and even more difficult to speak out against the practice. However, with the recent efforts to spread knowledge about the negative consequences of FGM and the fact that in many societies girls do not undergo FGM and are not ostracized, it is possible that many more women will speak out against the practice. It is difficult to fight against something if you believe that you are standing alone. However, if women realize that they are not alone and they are supported then this will help their well-being and can also give the strength to stand up against FGM and protect their daughters.

Sarajane Rodgers is a PsyD student at Antioch University New England. She first became aware of the many injustices that girls and women suffer around the globe when completing her undergraduate degree at Bryn Mawr, a women’s liberal arts college.


Festinger, Leon (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.
Yirga, WS., Kassa, NA. Gebremichael, MW., Aro, AR. (2012). International Journal of Women’s Health, 4 ,45-54.

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