Female genital mutilation and migration in Mali: do return migrants transfer social norms?


In this paper, we investigate the power of migration as a mechanism in the transmission of social norms, taking Mali and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as a case study. Mali has a strong FGM culture and a long-standing history of migration. We use an original household-level database coupled with census data to analyze the extent to which girls living in localities with high rates of return migrants are less prone to FGM. Malians migrate predominantly to other African countries where female circumcision is uncommon (e.g., Côte d’Ivoire) and to countries where FGM is totally banned (France and other developed countries) and where anti-FGM information campaigns frequently target African migrants. Taking a two-step instrumental variable approach to control for the endogeneity of migration and return decisions, we show that return migrants have a negative and significant influence on FGM practices. More precisely, we show that this result is primarily driven by the flow of returnees from Cote d’Ivoire. We also show that adults living in localities with return migrants are more informed about FGM and in favor of legislation. The impact of returnees may occur through several channels, including compositional effects, changes in return migrants’ attitudes toward FGM, and return migrants convincing stayers to change their FGM practices.

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  1. 1.

    Levitt (1998) was the first paper to define the concept of “social remittances.”

  2. 2.

    Emigration can affect political institutions via three other channels: (i) emigration provides people with exit options and a safety net in the form of remittance income, which can lower their incentives to voice on the domestic front and eventually delay democratic reform and political change; (ii) emigrants can voice from abroad and support various political groups and views at home; and (iii) given that migration is a non-random process, emigration alters various aspects of the home country population’s composition (especially education and ethnicity), which can in turn affect democracy at home.

  3. 3.

    These practices include the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs.

  4. 4.

    Source: DHS report on Mali, 2012–2013. Prevalence rates among women aged 15 to 49 are also over 90% in Djibouti, Egypt, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and North Sudan. They are over 70% in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania (Yoder and Wang 2013; WHO 2013).

  5. 5.

    In this paper, we deliberately restrict the literature review to papers using statistical data to identify the extent to which migration is a vehicle for the transfer of norms.

  6. 6.

    However, this positive impact is canceled out for a set of countries when the negative impact of emigration on the stock of human capital is taken into account.

  7. 7.

    See, for instance, Blau (1992), Khan (1994), Lindstrom and Saucedo (2002), Parrado and Morgan (2008), and Adsera and Ferrer (2013).

  8. 8.

    Note that the impact of remittances is ambiguous. Although more income can induce a greater desire to have more children, remittances can reduce the parents’ need to have a large number of children to take care of them when they are older.

  9. 9.

    Fargues (2007) focuses on migration from Morocco, Turkey, and Egypt. He posits that there is a transfer of fertility norms between the host countries and these countries. However, he does not control for alternative channels.

  10. 10.

    Norm transmissions have also been studied involving other channels. For instance, Asadullah and Wahhaj (forthcoming) investigate whether female early marriage in Bangladesh is a conduit for the transmission of social norms, specifically norms relating to gender roles and rights within the household.

  11. 11.

    However, potential ethnic group and level of education differences, which might explain the difference in FGM prevalence between immigrants and non-migrants, are not controlled for.

  12. 12.

    A slight increase in prevalence in Mali has been observed since 2006, when it stood at 85.2% following a downturn. The rate posted 94.0% in 1995–1996 and 91.6% in 2001 (Yoder and Khan, 2008; Yoder and Wang, 2013).

  13. 13.

    Yet FGM as a social coordination norm has been questioned, as some researchers observe enormous heterogeneity in cutting practices within and across communities (Efferson et al. 2015).

  14. 14.

    A second estimate in late 1989, at the request of GAMS (Women’s Group for the Abolition of Sexual Mutilation), set the number at approximately 27,000 women.

  15. 15.

    FGM is an offense under Article 222 of the Criminal Code on violence. The first case to be prosecuted was in 1979.

  16. 16.

    This could be either a village (in rural areas) or a neighborhood in a town or city.

  17. 17.

    Countries where FGM is practiced as much as in Mali are Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Mauritania, Niger, and Nigeria. Countries where FGM is prohibited and/or is practiced less than in Mali are European, American, and Asian countries plus African countries with the exception of Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Mauritania, Niger, and Nigeria.

  18. 18.

    This score is an aggregate of indicators of the material used to build the walls, floor, and roof of the housing and the type of toilet it has.

  19. 19.

    For instance, FGM was condemned by the government during the socialist period (from the 1960s to the end of the 1970s). The FGM debate subsequently waned and the practice was more or less accepted.

  20. 20.

    Even though religion is far from the main correlated factor, we introduce this variable as Muslims appear to practice FGM more widely than Christians or Animists.

  21. 21.

    The British Empire ran campaigns to ban female circumcision, especially in Kenya in the 1920s and 1930s (Hetherington, 1998; Thomas, 2000, and Boddy, 2007).

  22. 22.

    With the share of returnees from other countries as a control variable for the two last regressions.

  23. 23.

    Sources: Acled database https://www.acleddata.com/.

  24. 24.

    In addition to the questions on their knowledge of health consequences for girls and in adulthood, the interviewees were asked to list the type of health issues that came to mind. Concerning health issues for the circumcised girls, hemorrhage is cited first followed by decease and HIV infection. In adulthood, the most cited health issue is delivery problems followed by hemorrhage, decease, and HIV infection and other diseases.

  25. 25.

    The list experiment is based on the idea that if a sensitive question is asked indirectly, the truthful response will be given by the respondent. A list of items is proposed and interviewees have to indicate the total number of items with which they agree. Respondents are divided into two groups: a control group that receives a list of non-sensitive items and a treatment group asked to answer the same non-sensitive questions plus a sensitive question. The difference in mean response between the two groups provides the proportion of respondents who agree with the sensitive question.

  26. 26.

    Tests are shown in Table 4 and the first-stage regression results (column 4, Table 5) validate the instrumental strategy.

  27. 27.

    Ethnic group is measured by the household head’s mother tongue.

  28. 28.

    Similar results are found when these variables are measured for the daughter’s mother rather than for the household head.

  29. 29.

    It is worth noting that the adults who attended school are more informed and in favor of a law to ban FGM. Likewise, variables measuring their access to media are, for the most part, also significantly correlated with all these variables describing the interviewee’s opinion (cf. Table 12 in the appendices).

  30. 30.

    First-stage results are reproduced in column (2) of Table 13 in the appendices and the identification tests at the bottom of Table 7. Two in three instrumental variable coefficients are significant, and two in three instrumentation tests (Sargan and underidentification tests) validate the empirical strategy. As the Stock and Yogo tests do not reject the potential weak instrument hypothesis, the 2SLS results need to be viewed with caution.

  31. 31.

    Uneducated returnees are those who never attended school.

  32. 32.

    Educated and uneducated as well as male and female return migrant variables are the percentage of each of these categories in the population of each village as a whole.

  33. 33.

    Given that the current migrant variables can be correlated with the percentage of female household heads in the village, we test the robustness of this result when the latter variable is not included in the specification. It appears that the current migrant variables remain statistically non-significant (results available on request from the authors).

  34. 34.

    The robustness of the baseline results should also be controlled for when internal migration is included in the regressions. Unfortunately, this information is not available from the census data. However, FGM on adult women (15 to 49 years old) in Mali is practiced equally in urban and rural areas (see DHS report, p. 294 https://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/FR286/FR286.pdf) and practiced more in cities on young girls as shown by the data used in this analysis: 78.9% in urban areas as opposed to 75.0% in rural areas. This means that the baseline results should not be biased by this potential omitted variable.

  35. 35.

    And elsewhere, but they are very few.


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We thank Lisa Chauvet and Marion Mercier for providing some of the data used in this paper. We also acknowledge Flore Gubert, Jean-Noël Senne, Simone Bertoli, and participants in “Regards de Scientifiques sur le Mali Contemporain” (Bamako), the “Following the Flows, Transnational Approaches to Intangible Remittances” workshop (Princeton University), the University Paris-Dauphine/Singapore Management University workshop, and the workshop on International Migration at CERDI (Clermont-Ferrand) for their helpful discussions and comments. We are also grateful to Editor Klaus F. Zimmermann, five anonymous reviewers, and the Managing Editor Madeline Zavodny. Any remaining errors are ours.


This study was funded by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the French Inter-Establishment Agency for Development (AIRD) (“FSP Mali Contemporain”).

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Correspondence to Idrissa Diabate or Sandrine Mesplé-Somps.

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Table 11 Baseline model
Table 12 Baseline model on FGM attitudinal/perception measures
Table 13 First-stage regression, adult sample

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Diabate, I., Mesplé-Somps, S. Female genital mutilation and migration in Mali: do return migrants transfer social norms?. J Popul Econ 32, 1125–1170 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00148-019-00733-w

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  • Female genital excision
  • Social transfers
  • Migration
  • Mali

JEL codes

  • I15
  • O55
  • F22