LAWRENCEVILLE, Georgia – The trial of an Atlanta-area father 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 U.S. as immigrant communities grow.
Khalid Adem, a 31-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 U.S. involving the 5,000-year-old practice.
Prosecutors say 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."
The girl, now 7, also testified, clutching a teddy bear and saying that Adem "cut me on my private part." Adem cried loudly as his daughter left the courtroom.
Testifying on his own behalf Friday, 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.
Adem, who removed a handkerchief from his pocket and cried at one point during his testimony, was asked what he thought of someone who believes in the practice. He replied: "The word I can say is 'mind in the gutter.' He is a moron."
His lawyer, Mark Hill, acknowledged that Adem's daughter had been cut. But he implied that the family of Fortunate Adem, who immigrated from South Africa when she was 6, may have had the procedure done.
The Adems divorced in 2003, and Hill suggested that the couple's daughter was encouraged to testify against her father by her mother, who has full custody.
If convicted, Adem, a clerk at a suburban Atlanta gas station, could get up to 40 years in prison.
The U.S. State Department estimates that up to 130 million women had undergone circumcision worldwide 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 in the same ceremony, leading to infection.
It is unknown how many girls have died from the procedure, either during the cutting or from infections, or years later in childbirth.
Nightmares, depression, shock and feelings of betrayal are common psychological side effects, according to the federal report.
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. More than 90 percent of women in Ethiopia are believed to have been subjected to the practice, she said, and even more in places like Egypt and Somalia.
"It is a preparation for marriage," 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.
"I had maybe read about it in Reader's Digest or some other journal, but not really considered it a possibility here," said Dr. Rose Badaruddin, the pediatrician for the Adems' daughter.
Many refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia come to Georgia through a federal refugee resettlement program.
"With immigration, the immigrants travel with their traditions," 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 Fortunate Adem, passed an anti-mutilation law last year. However, Khalid Adem is not being tried under that law, since it did not exist when his daughter's cutting allegedly happened.