THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION, Atlanta, Georgia, 18 July 2003.

Atlantans, Africans fight girls' 'circumcision'

Illegal in U.S., practice goes underground

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As a caseworker for Refugee Family Services in Clarkston, Laila Mohamed often helps immigrants struggling to maintain their culture in new surroundings.

But there's one tradition Mohamed hopes they will leave behind -- female circumcision.

"I'm one of the women who suffered. I don't want this to happen to the new generation," said the 39-year-old Mohamed, who was a 6-year-old growing up in Sudan when her family arranged her "circumcision." The caseworker added, "It frequently happens in our community, but I want it to stop."

Mohamed and other Atlanta caseworkers will be meeting with activists and educators from 10 African countries this weekend to discuss efforts to prevent the mutilating practice around the world -- and in local immigrant communities.

The procedure, which involves removing the clitoris or all of the external genitalia, is illegal in the United States. But it remains an important cultural practice in many African countries, often serving as a coming-of-age ritual.

Health and human rights activists who oppose the practice refer to it as "female genital mutilation" and condemn it as a dangerous, painful and unnecessary procedure.

The four-day conference at the Holiday Inn Downtown, which starts today, is sponsored by Equality Now, an international women's rights advocacy group.

The conference comes three months after a Gwinnett man was arrested and charged with cruelty to children and aggravated battery for allegedly circumcising his daughter, then 2 years old, with a pair of scissors in 2001. Gwinnett police arrested Khalid Adem, 27, who immigrated from Ethiopia 10 years ago. Adem and his family say he had nothing to do with the act.

The organization originally planned to hold the annual conference in Nairobi, Kenya, according to executive director Taina Bien-Aimé. But after learning of the Gwinnett case, organizers decided to hold meetings in Atlanta instead.

"It's an incredible opportunity to break the silence about the issue," she said.

Recent efforts to decrease the frequency of the procedure in Africa have been largely successful, Bien-Aimé said, but many in the United States remain unaware of its prevalence here.

"It's even more disturbing to see progress in Africa while in this country we're not prepared to address the issue," she said.

In 1997, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that over 160,000 girls and women in immigrant communities in the United States may have undergone "circumcision."

And refugee caseworkers say the practice remains frequent in some Atlanta communities. "It's still there, but people have decided to go underground and continue with this practice, which is frightening," said Glory Kilanko, executive director of the Atlanta-based Women Watch Afrika.

While preserving cultural traditions is important, Kilanko said, it's also necessary to review practices such as female circumcision.

"Cultural violence is still violence against women. People who are practicing this do not know why they are doing it," she said. "They were born into it. They feel they have no other choice."

Congress passed a law prohibiting female circumcision in 1996. And though 16 states, including Texas, West Virginia and Tennessee, have laws barring the practice, Georgia does not.

Bien-Aimé and others are hoping that will begin to change after this weekend's meeting, and that future local cases like Adem's will be prosecuted under a more specific state law prohibiting female circumcision. At the meeting's conclusion Monday, Equality Now and state Sen. Nadine Thomas (D-Decatur) plan to announce a bill that would make the practice illegal in Georgia.

"You need to have laws that prohibit the practice, and you need to have law enforcement that aggressively prosecutes people who break the law," Bien-Aimé said.

(File prepared 22 July 2003)