Essays in Culture and Institutions of Developing Countries

Aisha I. Yusuf

Advisor: Tyler Cowen, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: Thomas Stratmann, Jonathan Schulz, Alice Evans

Online Location, Online
April 11, 2022, 02:00 PM to 04:00 PM


Gender inequality remains a global issue in developing countries. In 2015, the United Nations included gender equality among its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. Recognizing why gender-biased norms emerge and persist across generations is crucial for closing gender gaps. This dissertation focuses on the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Africa.

Chapter 1 surveys the literature on Female Genital Mutilation. Using insights from economics, sociology, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology, I study the historical background, persistence, and the enforcements of FGM norms. The paper highlights the role of the environment, social punishments, and kinship structures in establishing FGM traditions across cultures in Africa.    

In Chapter 2, I explore how deeply-entrenched ethnic norms determine FGM today. Using both ethnographic and contemporary survey data for over 130,000 women across 9 African countries, I find evidence that (i) there is a positive correlation between ethnic identity and FGM; (ii) FGM rates among women whose ancestors relied on pastoralism and plow agriculture has declined across birth cohorts; (iii) FGM rates are rising among women from ethnic societies with historically loose kinship structures and norms regarding premarital sexual behavior.

Chapter 3 explores how laws affect attitudes. Specifically, I examine the short-term effects of the 2016 FGM law in Guinea on attitudes towards ending the practice. I use IPUMS-DHS data for women belonging to the Malinke and Peulh ethnic groups in both Guinea and Mali, pre and post-intervention, to study the impact of the FGM law ban. I employ a difference-in-difference approach that is made possible because of the artificial drawing of the African border, which partitioned ethnic groups with identical beliefs and customs across countries. My result shows that the FGM law in Guinea led to an increase in attitudes that favored ending the practice.