ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (Reuters) -- The jailing of an Ethiopian in the United States for circumcising his 2-year-old daughter with scissors has fueled a passionate debate across Africa, with many approving the punishment but some urging understanding. In what is believed to be the first such case in the United States, Khalid Adem on Wednesday was sentenced to 10 years in prison for removing his 2-year-old daughter's clitoris in 2001. The practice arouses horror in the West, but is still widespread in many of Africa's traditional societies.
"The punishment is appropriate because what he did is a violation of child rights," Bulti Gueteema, a senior official in Ethiopia's Ministry of Women's Affairs, told Reuters. 'You cannot jail an entire community'
Ethiopian mother Elizabeth Gorge said it was "revolting" for a father to circumcise his own daughter by himself. "Even the uneducated parents in rural areas do not do such practices on their own, they always seek assistance of women who specialize in this," she said in Addis Ababa. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said the practice was outlawed but still common in his Horn of Africa nation. "If a whole community is involved in this practice, you cannot jail an entire community. You have to change the mindset, and that takes time," he said last week.
The practice, also known as female circumcision, usually involves cutting off the clitoris and other genitalia parts. It is often carried out by an older woman with no medical training, using anything from scissors to pieces of glass under no anesthetics or antiseptic treatment. An estimated 3 million girls and women are mutilated or cut each year on the African continent, the United Nations' children's agency UNICEF says, in a custom viewed in many traditional cultures as a necessary rite of passage.
Circumcision is also used to control or reduce women's sexual desire to lessen the chance of promiscuity in marriage. The practice disfigures and sometimes kills girls from intense infection, causes extreme pain, psychological harm, problems with urination, complicates childbirth later in life, and reduces sexual pleasure for women, opponents say. As populations move West, the custom has followed in immigrant communities.
"As long as this happens in a civilized society in the United States, it means our effort to eradicate this practice has failed," said Bjorn Ljungqvist, of UNICEF in Ethiopia.
In Kenya, it is known to be still common among traditional communities like the Masai.
"If a woman is not cut, she remains a baby forever and cannot perform social rites with other women," Ben Koissaba, a Masai elder in Kenya, told Reuters by telephone from the town of Narok in Kenya's Rift Valley. "This (Ethiopian) man was doing it because he thought it would be a bad omen on his child if he did not. Maybe he should have been reprimanded not jailed, but we should try to understand his culture."
In some Muslim countries of west Africa, considered among the continent's most conservative cultures, mutilation is common. Nine of 10 Malian women have undergone mutilation, for example, a European parliamentarian said this year. "Circumcision is an affront to the physical and moral integrity of a woman and that is why I will always be against the practice," said Hadiza Moussa, a female teacher in Niamey, capital of Niger. "Just like a man, a woman has her natural desires, notably to draw pleasure from sexual relations. No, we must outlaw this practice everywhere, especially because it can result in sterility."