FGM and legal reform

Somalia’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs announced it will introduce legislation to ban FGM/C. In my twitter feed, this news was met with exclamations of how it’s a win for women and such progress. But a little more reading shows that the 2012 Somali constitution already considers FGM/C torture and prohibits the practice.

And yet, the WHO estimated in 2006 that 97.9% of women and girls aged 15-49 in Somalia had been cut.

97.9%

Outlawing the process through the Constitution likely has not resulted in much change to that figure. So, what’s the purpose of making another law that people won’t follow? Well, perhaps the government could direct services to women and girls who didn’t want to be cut, or pay for programming to encourage local leaders and parents to publicly denounce cutting, as has been tried in parts of West Africa, or maybe just getting it in the news again will be useful.

I’m not optimistic, though. Unless real efforts are made to identify and address the normative and cultural aspects of the practice, it’s hard to imagine outlawing it actually being effective.

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Inheritance law and suicide in India

I started to send this out as a series of tweets, but decided it was worth something a bit longer. I haven’t had much time to blog over the last 9 months, but perhaps this summer will get me writing again…

A new Anderson & Genicot paper finds that codifying inheritance rights to property for women in India lead to increased suicide rates for both men and women. The paper is based on an intrahousehold bargaining framework and rests on the mechanism whereby if women are seemingly arbitrarily given more power in relationships via more access to capital, that might cause stress and thus lead to suicide by men. It also might be that as men inherit smaller shares of their parents’ assets, it is essentially an unexpected shock and could cause financial stress that could lead to suicide. There is precedent for this interpretation in the literature, particularly in sociology.

For women, the argument to me is less clear. The inherited property, though perhaps causing additional marital discord or stress, is also 1) an increase in potential income–which should theoretically decrease overall stress levels, and 2) a better outside option, leaving women more free to leave a relationship. If either of these hold, they should actually lead to a decrease in the suicide rate.

Also, suicide rates are not just going up for married men and women. The WHO recently announced that suicide is the biggest killer of adolescent girls worldwide. Even though adolescent girls can inherit property in India (from what I can tell, there is no bar based on age of majority), they’re probably not the largest group of inheritors. So, do we believe that suicide rates for adolescent girls are totally unrelated to suicide rates for older women and men? I doubt it, especially given a large body of work that posits that suicide rates may be influenced by media coverage of suicide (for example). That suicide is driven by the inheritance law requires us to believe they are mostly unrelated. Or that girls are so stressed about the idea of one day owning and running a farm that they check out early.

While the empirical work appears to be very strong in the Anderson and Genicot paper, I’m not sold on the theoretical mechanism. Moving towards gender equality in places with strong traditional gender roles and norms is likely to put stress on many individuals. Reallocation of profits and assets will also understandably cause unexpected wealth shocks for both men and women and could lead to marital discord, but it could also lead to stronger, more independent women. Further, higher rates of suicide among groups that are likely unaffected by the law change suggest something unobserved is affecting suicide rates.

What works for girls?

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting with Ratna Sudarshan, an economist here in Delhi who is currently a fellow at the National University Education Planning Administration. We had a long discussion about how to look at female employment in India and then about the cultural dimensions of women’s empowerment and agency. I’ve often said that I really dislike the term empowerment. First, because the word literally means to give someone power and you can’t really give someone your own power, but secondly because it’s a term that’s quite jargon-y and steeped in a Western sense of what it means to be independent, have agency, and make one’s own decisions. 

Ratna asked me what I meant by empowerment and I gave a litany of possible answers, ending with, but it all depends on where you are. And she responded with a story of girls in Rajasthan, an arid, desert-y state in Western India, where age of marriage is very early, but girls tend not to live with their husbands until they’ve finished their formal schooling. So while the outward measure of “empowerment” bodes poorly for women, their age at first birth is actually quite high, so the health risks normally associated with child marriage aren’t really present.

It was with this in mind that I read about a series of World Bank reports summarizing impact evaluations on what works to reduce maternal mortality, delay age of marriage, and generally improve the lot of girls in the developing world. The reports were released this month in anticipation of the coming Millenium Development Goals deadlines. 

So, while I highly recommend you read them, I also urge you to think about context. 

Context, context, context, and how important it is in determining the effectiveness of policy or programmatic interventions.

More on adolescent girls, because, yeah

I just realized that I never shared this work with you all. This post was written almost four months ago, but I think it’s still relevant. And even more so now as the papers are all live on the Girl Effect website. I hope you enjoy it!

My coauthor and I spent the last week finishing up our issues paper on adolescent girls for DFID and the Nike Foundation. It’s been this super crazy, whirlwind kind of project where I’ve learned so much and met so many amazing people. It’s exciting, but it sure was exhausting. I’m really excited to be able to share our findings, here they are!

So, what do we find? For the most part, programs that seek to use social norms to reduce societal discrimination against adolescent girls aren’t very well-studied. With the exception of a very small number of programs, both quantitative and qualitative analysis are lacking; overall there has been little effort to sufficiently randomize participants and perform rigorous pre- and post-intervention analysis. Thus the ability to causally identify statistically significant effects of these programs is incredibly limited.

There are a few rays of light, however. We found three programs–Tostan, Meena Communication Initiative, and Promises–that promote gender-equitable behaviors and discourage violence and discrimination against adolescent girls using social norms language or methods. All three of these programs employ multifaceted interventions. That is to say that while each has a goal of reducing discrimination or ending FGM/C, the actual process includes community conversations, social norms marketing through popular culture medium such as comic books and television shows, community declarations, school programming and more.

It seems that this is the way programs in the developing world are going. Recently, Markus Goldstein posted about his new paper on a child club program to promote the status and welfare of adolescent girls in Uganda. Though it doesn’t seem to have a strong social norms component, ELA is multifaceted, and thus multi-outcome.

In terms of sexual behavior, the girls who participate in the clubs show significantly better HIV and pregnancy knowledge than the control group.   They are also 12.6 percentage points more likely to report always using a condom when they have sex (which matches up with a reduction in those reporting often or occasional use of a condom).   They also experience a striking reduction in fertility – at follow up, treatment girls are 2.7 percentage points less likely to have a kid (26 percent of the baseline mean).   Now since they also report no increase in use of other forms of contraception, these things taken together strongly suggest that they are markedly reducing their risk of exposure to HIV.

My favorite part of reading this paper was this interactive effect. It’s very cool and I think will provide an strong template going forward for programs that wish to engage communities and have profound, lasting effects. Both Markus’ research and ours suggest that the narrowly focused, difficult-to-replicate, difficult-to-scale-up RCTs such as those heralded in Poor Economics and More Than Good Intentions have some growing to do.

Examining a different “why” in development, aid, and girls

I was in London last week at the behest of the Nike Foundation and DFID for what I’m told was a very unique event, the first of its kind, on the status of adolescent girls in the world. It was a whirlwind couple of days with lots of amazing conversations, lots of confusing conversations, and lots of learning. My coauthor and I were both struck by the tremendous amount of experience and wealth of knowledge around that room. I could not have fathomed anything like it before getting on a plane to the UK.

It was definitely the first time I’d ever been in a room like this. 70 people from various development agencies–both funding and programmatic–people who work in the field, people who work in development administration and a few like me, who work with numbers and evidence and research.

At the end of it all, I was totally exhausted. By the time we even finished our first dinner, I was curious as to whether I would make it through the rest of the week, but I left with a much greater sense of the work that is being done and the challenges of implementing the kinds of programs and collecting the data I study. I hope that practitioners also left with some insight into how they can make my job of evaluating easier.

Given that the work we produced for this conference was on using social norms to reduce societal discrimination against girls, I spent a lot of time this week thinking about the “why?” I don’t mean the “why are we here?” or “why are we doing this kind of research?” I think the community convened this week has a very clear idea of why they think this research is important, though I think they have a harder sell to some of those that fund it. I mean the why rather in a sense of why does this work? And why doesn’t it work? I think a lot that was discussed is about “what works” and “how should we proceed” and the other why is actually very important if we’re concerned about expansion, replication, and scale.

What works is only so useful a question in development if you are looking at comparable populations, comparable implementers, comparable geographies, and similarly changing economies. That’s almost impossible. But if we can say this works, and this works because of they way it interacts with more global phenomena–like desire to conform to a group, or desire not to be embarrassed–, that helps us figure out how to take it somewhere else. Because then the question of how to effect the same behavior change in another environment becomes not “what worked over there?” but rather “how does the mechanism through which we achieved change there come to work over here?”

I grant that it’s a more complicated question. And it may seem silly coming from me compared to someone with decades of experience in the field, but I do think there are big contributions to come from social norms research and other mechanisms. There are several avenues to be explored, but it’s nice to have a bit of a grasp on one of them.

International Day of the Girl

Today is International Day of the Girl, the first Day of the Girl, in fact, as established by the United Nations. My twitter and inboxes are overflowing with tributes to girls, and links citing the value of empowering (one of my least favorite development buzzwords) girls, and reminders to check out various girl-positive campaigns. By coincidence or design, next week, I’m headed to London for a meeting on this very topic with DFID and Girl Hub. A coauthor and I have just finished a paper on using social norms interventions to reduce discrimination against and adverse treatment of adolescent girls. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we find that most programs aren’t studied with the rigor that would lead us be confident in definitive, causal effects. Worse, still, many of the programs we found seem more likely to reinforce social norms that make discriminatory behavior seem common or accepted (such as: people in this community marry off their girl children at an early age), which might justify discriminatory behavior or harmful practices. I cannot share the final product just yet, but hope to be able to by the end of November.

It also happens that today follows the shooting of a child education activist in Pakistan by the very anti-girl Taliban. Fourteen year-old Malala Yousufzai gained notoriety for her anonymous blog on education in Pakistan for the BBC and has become an outstanding spokesperson for gender equality and girls’ education in Pakistan. Former First Lady Laura Bush encourages all to speak out against such violence in the Washington Post and to support girls’ education and safety around the world. The New Yorker calls Malala “the girl who wanted to go to school” and gives a bit more background.

Now that I’ve depressed you, if you’re looking for something uplifting, I suggest reading a Meena comic book (this one, for example: Rosa_meena_Count_your_chickens). The Meena Communication Initiative is a social norms marketing program that’s been in place for almost 15 years all over Southeast Asia. It does a great job of encouraging gender-equitable behavior through community involvement without reinforcing stereotypes or emphasizing the prevalence of discrimination.

Below is a list of a few things I’ve found around the internet today on girls and International Day of the Girl. Updates forthcoming and suggestions welcome. Happy Day of the Girl!

The UN is taking this day to call for an end to child marriage, and World Learning reminds us that despite advances, there’s “still a long way to go.” TrustLaw Women highlights a program by ICWR and CARE-Ethiopia called Gatekeepers, which encourages community members to go door-to-door, educating their neighbors about the health consequences of child marriage.

Striking a balance in data collection

A big part of my research time is spent on violence against women, gender-based violence, domestic violence, and harmful traditional practices. Though sometimes all whipped into a category of “women’s issues,” I’ve argued before that these are problems that everyone should care about, that they exert severe effects on our health and well-being as a society, emotionally, physically and economically.

Currently, I’m mired in two data collection projects, both with various degrees of hopelessness. I’ll write more later about my time in Caracas, but suffice it to say for now that there simply isn’t data available on issues like the ones I mention above. Or if it is available, no one’s going to give it to me. No surveys, no police data, no statistics on hotline use, nothing. We don’t know anything.

Conversely, in a meta-analysis of programs for adolescent girls that I’m writing with a colleague, my coauthor came upon a study suggesting that in order to correctly assess prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) we should submit randomly selected female villagers in rural areas to physical exams.

I was shocked and disgusted when she sent me the study. I don’t doubt for a minute that the most accurate way to gauge prevalence of FGM is to randomly select women and examine them, but seriously? I am astounded that no one thought through the psychological consequences of women who have already been victims of gender-based violence being examined by a foreigner who thinks they are lying about whether they’ve been cut.

These days, it’s a good reminder for me that in collecting data there is such a thing as too much, and such a thing as not enough. It’s all about striking a balance.