Cameroon: "Breast-ironing" of young girls, a harmful custom
"Although I cry hard because of the pain, she tells me: 'Endure, daughter; you are young and there is no point in having breasts at your age'." This practice, referred to as "breast ironing", occurs extensively in the 10 provinces of Cameroon. In an effort to prevent adolescent breasts from developing, implements such as grinding stones, pestles, ladles and spatulas are heat then used to massage the chests of girls. Other approaches may also be resorted to.
According to the German Agency for Technical Co-operation (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit, GTZ), an international body owned by the German government, some 3.8 million teenagers are threatened with the practice. (The development agency conducted an investigation into the "ironing of breasts" in January.) "In Cameroon, 24 percent of girls, about one girl in four, undergo 'ironing' of breasts," Flavien Ndonko, a doctor who works for GTZ, told IPS.
Ndonko says parents justify the traumatising practice by saying it is needed to prevent men from pursuing their daughters too soon, and to prevent early pregnancies that would tarnish the family name. Parents also say that they want their daughters to grow up and pursue their studies. But, not only is "breast ironing" ineffective in preventing teenage pregnancies; it also has serious consequences for the health of girls. "Beyond the pain and trauma caused by 'breast ironing'," says Marie Claire Eteki, a doctor at the health ministry, the practice "could lead to the appearance of certain illnesses, such as breast cancer, cysts (and) depression."
Brenda Mahop, a first year law student at the University of Yaoundé II-Soa, is another of those who have been forced to undergo the practice. "My aunt and my mother pounded my chest every day when I was barely 10 years old. I cried endlessly," she told IPS. Mahop has heart problems, and questions whether her condition is related to these events. Her experiences have prompted her to join a campaign launched by unwed mothers in Cameroon against the "ironing of breasts". These mothers belong to 61 associations across the country that are united under the National Network of the Associations of Aunties (Réseau national des associations de tantines, RENATA).
The fear and pain caused by the practice force certain girls to flee their homes -- sometimes with disastrous consequences. Jeanine Efon, 23, told IPS that she left her parents' home to take refuge with an uncle when she was 13. But this man and his wife also tried to carry out the practice, causing her to flee again. She then found herself with a neighbour who seemed to sympathise with her problems -- only to rape her that same evening. Ariane Elouna tells a similar story. "Returning from school one afternoon...my aunt followed me in he room and asked 'What is that you have there, on your chest?'" she told IPS. Elouna's mother heated the grinding stone and asked her to undress. "She then protected her hands, and started rubbing my breasts vigorously," the teenager added. "Not being able to endure the pain any longer, I fled the next day to our neighbour, and it was there that his son raped me and I fell pregnant." Elouna is 15 now, and has a son of three months.
But despite the problems caused by practice of "ironing breasts", it has not yet been banned by authorities. "The Ministry for the Promotion of Women and the Family encourages us in our efforts to make parents aware of the (dangers of) 'ironing' of breasts. But, I think this is insufficient, taking into account the expansion of the practice and its effect on our communities," Bessem Ebanga, executive secretary of RENATA, told IPS. "We want to encourage authorities to introduce a law in parliament to outlaw this abominable practice. Breasts are a gift of God," she adds. Eric Effemba, who works for the Ministry for the Promotion of Women and the Family, told IPS that his department supported the efforts of unwed mothers concerning "breast ironing" -- and that it was working with civil society to come up with a law which would consign the practice to history.
By: Sylvestre Tetchiada
13 June 2006
 What is Breast Ironing?
Breast ironing is a traditional practice that involves massaging or pressing the breasts of adolescent girls in order to suppress and reverse their development. The rationale is to prevent girls from developing breasts in the belief that a flat, child-like chest will discourage unwanted male attention, rape and pre-marital pregnancy.
Breast ironing is a well-kept secret between the young girl and her mother. Often the father remains completely unaware. The girl believes that what her mother is doing is for her own good and keeps silent. This silence perpetuates the practice and all of its consequences.Breast ‘ironing’ involves massaging the growing breasts of young girls in order to make them disappear, usually by using a stone, a hammer or a spatula that has been heated over coals.
Proponents say they do this to discourage male interference in young girls, to prevent girls themselves from pursuing men, to discourage girls from engaging in sexual intercourse at a very young age and to reduce the risk of pregnancy. Because the topic of sex is taboo, young girls remain ignorant of how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. Young people make up most of the 5.5 per cent of the population living with HIV, and teenage pregnancy is a growing concern—thus increasing reliance on breast ironing to deter sexual activity.
Proponents also argue that discouraging male attention will ensure that the girl’s studies will not be interrupted.
Breast ironing appears to be most widely-practiced in Cameroon. It's more common in the Christian and animist south of the country than the Muslim north, where only 10 per cent of women are affected.
*It also occurs in Guinea-Bissau, West and Central Africa, including Chad, Togo, Benin, Guinea-Conakry.
*Some 24 per cent of girls in Cameroon, about one girl in four, undergo breast ironing.
*Breast ironing occurs extensively in the 10 provinces throughout Cameroon.
*A sample survey published in January 2006 of 5000 girls and women aged between 10 and 82 in Cameroon, estimates that 4 million women had suffered the process.
*Today, 3.8 million teenagers are threatened with the practice.
*Up to 53 per cent of women and girls interviewed in the coastal Littoral province in the southeast, where the country's main port, Douala, is situated, admit to having had their breasts 'ironed'.
*More than half (58 per cent) of cases breast ironing were undertaken by mothers. Other relatives also participate.
Health and Socio-Economic Implications
Breast ironing is terribly painful and violates a young girl’s physical integrity.
Breast ironing exposes girls to numerous health problems such as abscesses, itching, discharge of milk, infection, dissymmetry of the breasts, cysts, breast infections, severe fever, tissue damage and even the complete disappearance of one or both breasts.
This painful form of mutilation could not only have negative health consequences for the girls, but often proves futile when it comes to deterring teenage sexual activity.
The Network of Aunties Association, RENATA, made up of members who have undergone the practice are drawing public attention to the psychological trauma and other ensuing health risks in order to protect young girls from this form of bodily mutilation.
RENATA has produced radio and television spots, and several radio and television journalists have joined in spreading information about breast ironing. Leaflets and calendars outlining the types of objects used in breast ironing, the extent of the practice and its consequences have also been produced.
Governments in affected countries should raise public awareness of the dangers of breast ironing and why it needs to be stopped. Awareness raising should also include frank discussions of sexuality. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for many parents to talk to their children about sex owing to modesty or for cultural reasons. Some expert theorize that parents prefer instead, to rid their children of the bodily signs of puberty in order to avoid potentially embarrassing discussions. The onset of adolescence, however, is exactly the right time to start such dialogues.
Prosecution of perpetrators
Source: United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) factsheet, part of the 16 Days of Activism To End Violence Against Women
- Recommendations for action against gender-related killing of women and girls
- Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences
- Addendum to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences
- Afghanistan: Their lives on the line: Women human rights defenders under attack in Afghanistan