Showing films that portray different attitudes to female genital mutilation (FGM) within the communities that practice it could be an effective way to reduce its occurrence. This is the conclusion of different experiments conducted in Sudan, based on the idea that cultural norms within local populations are not adhered to uniformly.

Around the world, FGM (also referred to as female genital cutting (FGC) ) is still widespread and it is performed on more than 2 million girls each year. The term encompasses a variety of practices – including the removal of the clitoris – with an impact on the health of women which can be very negative. It can also cause long-term problems with sexual intercourse, childbirth and mental health.

In some cultures, the practice is deeply rooted in tradition. Efforts to reduce the numbers of girls undergoing genital mutilation are hampered by the fact local populations often resist adopting new practices, because they view it as an unwelcome interference from the outside world, and sometimes associate it with colonialism. They may resent the moral judgement passed by outsiders.

Progressively, initiatives to reduce the occurrence of FGM have started to focus on the opinions of local populations who practice it. The basic idea is that there are local differences of opinion regarding FGM, and such differences can be exploited to find and promote examples of desirable behaviours in the entire community.

With this in mind, a team of researchers designed two experiments, to present communities in Sudan with movies dramatising these differences of opinion on FGM. They showed that not all locals agree with the practice. Their findings are presented in the journal Nature.

Two experiments, four movies

The experiences involved showing four differently edited versions of a high-quality film with the same basic plot, which had nothing to do female genital cutting. In three of the versions, material stressing differences of opinion about cutting among the characters. They expressed different points of view, discussing topics such as whether FGM is healthy, or whether it changes a woman's chances to marry.

In the authors' first experiment, a total of 189 people from five communities were randomly assigned to watch one of the four films. This was followed by the same experiment, but this time involving 7,729 individuals from 122 communities. After the viewings, changes in attitudes were evaluated using an implicit association test designed to measure subconscious changes in attitudes.

Female genital cutting - or mutilation - is still widespread in the world. Getty

In both experiments, the researchers observed a change in attitudes among participants. Immediately after watching the films, the first group's attitude towards uncut girls improve by 55–64% of one standard deviation in the scores generated by the implicit association test. The second experiment measured attitudes one week after viewing the film and the results were more modest but still encouraging – attitudes to uncut girls improved by 10–11% of one standard deviation.

What next?

These experiments remain limited by the fact attitudes to FGM were only measured at one point in time after watching the film, so it is not possible to assess the impact on the long term. Also, changes in attitudes do not mean concrete changes will happen on the ground, and it is thus necessary to conduct more similar studies on the topic.

One thing is certain however: effective tools are seriously lacking to combat FGM. This study hints that films could be useful to shape opinion and show people that adherence to cultural norms is not necessarily universal in their communities.