Is there a link between paternity concern and female genital cutting in West Africa?

Janet A. Howard*, Mhairi A. Gibson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)
198 Downloads (Pure)


Here we explore the relationship between female genital cutting (FGC), sexual behaviour, and marriage opportunities in five West African countries. Using large demographic datasets (n 72,438 women, 12,704 men, 10,695 couples) we explore key (but untested) assumptions of an evolutionary proposal that FGC persists because it provides evolutionary fitness benefits for men by reducing non-paternity rates. We identify and test three assumptions implicit in this proposal. We test whether cut women have reduced extra-pair sex before or within marriage; whether FGC is associated with a younger age at marriage as an indication of partner preference; and whether individual and group-level indicators of paternity concern are associated with a stronger preference for marriage to women with FGC. Our results show that FGC status does not affect the odds of women engaging in several indicators of premarital sex, however women with FGC have significantly lower odds of having more than one lifetime sexual partner. We also show that women with FGC get married at a younger age which supports the argument that FGC status influences women's marriage opportunities, even when it does not restrict sexual activity. Finally, we find that in population groups where reported sexual activity and perceived risk of women's extra-pair sex is high, men have higher odds of marrying a first wife with FGC. Together, these results indicate that paternity certainty may be one of several factors contributing to the persistence of FGC in this sample, and that group-level sexual norms are key to maintaining the practice of FGC through the marriage market.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number1
Early online date2 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2019


  • Evolutionary anthropology
  • Extra-pair sex
  • Female genital mutilation
  • Marriage
  • Paternity certainty
  • Sexual conflict


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