Doug Gross, AP, October 28, 2006
Lawrenceville, Ga. — The trial of an Atlanta-area man accused of circumcising his 2-year-old daughter with scissors is focusing attention on an ancient African practice that experts say is slowly becoming more common in the United States as immigrant communities grow.
Khalid Adem, a 30-year-old immigrant from Ethiopia, is charged with aggravated battery and cruelty to children. Human rights observers said they believe this is the first criminal case in the United States involving the 5,000-year-old practice.
Prosecutors say Mr. Adem used scissors to remove his daughter’s clitoris in their apartment in 2001. The child’s mother said she did not discover it until more than a year later.
“He said he wanted to preserve her virginity,” Fortunate Adem, the girl’s mother, testified this week. “He said it was the will of God. I became angry in my mind. I thought he was crazy.”
Mrs. Adem said she may not have noticed the cutting sooner because the girl regularly developed rashes — visiting a doctor two dozen times before she was 3. A doctor testified that tissue in the area heals quickly and that the part of her body that was cut likely would not be checked during a regular exam.
The girl, now 7, also testified, clutching a teddy bear and saying that Mr. Adem “cut me on my private part.” Mr. Adem cried loudly as his daughter left the courtroom.
Testifying on his own behalf, Mr. Adem said he never circumcised his daughter or asked anyone else to do so. He said he grew up in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and considers the practice more prevalent in rural areas.
His attorney, Mark Hill, acknowledged that Mr. Adem’s daughter had been cut. But he implied that Mrs. Adem’s family, who immigrated from South Africa when she was 6, may have had the procedure done.
The Adems divorced in 2003, and Mr. Hill suggested that the couple’s daughter was encouraged to testify against her father by her mother, who has full custody.
If convicted, Mr. Adem, a clerk at a suburban Atlanta gas station, could get up to 40 years in prison.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, using figures from the 1990 census, estimated that 168,000 girls and women in the United States have undergone the procedure or were at risk of being subjected to it.
The State Department estimated that up to 130 million women worldwide had undergone circumcision as of 2001. Knives, razors or even sharp stones are usually used, according to a 2001 department report. The tools often are not sterilized, and often many girls are circumcised at the same ceremony, leading to infection.
Nightmares, depression, shock and feelings of betrayal are common psychological side effects, according to the federal report.
The report estimated that 73 percent of women in Ethiopia had undergone the procedure, based on a 1997 survey.
Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of Equality Now, an international human rights group, said female circumcision is most widely practiced in a 28-country swath of Africa. She said more than 90 percent of women in Ethiopia are believed to have been subjected to the practice, and more in places like Egypt and Somalia.
“It is a preparation for marriage,” Miss Bien-Aime said. “If the girl is not circumcised, her chances of being married are very slim.”
The practice crosses ethnic and cultural lines and is not tied to a particular religion. Activists say the practice is intended to deny women sexual pleasure. In its most extreme form, the clitoris and parts of the labia are removed and the labia that remain are stitched together.
“With immigration, the immigrants travel with their traditions,” Miss Bien-Aime said. “Female genital mutilation is not an exception.”
Federal law specifically bans the practice, but many states do not have a law addressing it. Georgia lawmakers, with the support of Mrs. Adem, passed an anti-mutilation law last year. Khalid Adem is not being tried under that law, since it did not exist when his daughter’s cutting reputedly was done.