A new study by anthropologists at the University of Bristol will help campaigners to closely target their work in eradicating female genital cutting (FGC).
The World Health Organisation report that an estimated three million girls are at risk every year of having their genitals cut in some way, mostly before the age of 15.
Long term health effects include infections, complications in childbirth and chronic pain.
Researchers found in a rural Ethiopian community that most people did not support the practice when questioned directly; however, indirect methods of enquiry revealed continued higher levels of support for FGC among some sections of society.
Those individuals most inclined to hold strong but concealed views in support of FGC included older influential men and those who had been to school.
University of Bristol Reader in Anthropology Dr Mhairi Gibson and Dr Eshetu Gurmu of Addis Ababa University spent six months in South Central Ethiopia asking residents for their views on FGC, comparing responses given directly to those using specialised indirect questioning methods (designed to obtain anonymous responses).
Dr Gibson said: “The elimination of female genital cutting is a key target for health policy-makers in high-risk communities such as parts of Africa and the Middle East.
“One of the main barriers to achieving this goal is the absence of good quality data on behaviour and social attitudes that underpin this illegal practice.
“The new method of questioning we’ve developed addresses the problem that people may hide their true feelings about such a sensitive topic, and provides more accurate information on subgroups who hold the strongest views in support of the practice.
“Now campaigners and policy makers can adapt their behaviour change work to target older educated males and the methods could be used to provide new insights to other culturally sensitive behaviour such as intimate partner violence, risky sex and early marriage.”