YAOUNDE, Cameroon — The United Nations has acknowledged breast ironing as “one of five forgotten crimes against women.” The international organization estimates as many as 3.8 million teenage girls are at risk of exposure or have been affected by breast ironing, a traditional practice originating from Cameroon.
Breast ironing involves using a hot stone, spatula or coconut shells, which have been heated over burning coals to rub over or massage the breasts of young girls — causing them to disappear and make their chest flat again. Its main design or intent is to deter unsolicited male attention, pregnancy and rape by delaying or removing signs of female sexual puberty.
“My mother took a pestle, she warmed it well in the fire and then she used it to pound my breasts while I was lying down. She took the back of a coconut, warmed it in the fire and used it to iron the breasts,” recalls Geraldin Sirri, a student, to BBC.
“I was crying and trembling to escape, but there was no way,” Sirri recalled.
Apart from immense pain, the traditional practice subjects young girls to psychological trauma as well as perilous health problems such as abscesses, cysts, tissue damage, infection, burns, deformations and/or the disappearance of one or both breasts.
Professor Anderson Doh, a cancer surgeon and director of the state-owned Gynaecological Hospital in Cameroon’s capital of Yaounde, emphasized that the practice is unsafe.
“There are structures in the breast made of connective tissue. Now if you over iron the breast, if you use very hot objects, if you pound on the breast at this tender age when the structures are developing of course you could also cause damage,” he told BBC.
A gynecologist in Cameroon, Dr. Sinou Tchana, has noticed breast glands that were damaged and saw one case of cancer, although she could not confirm if breast ironing had caused or aggravated the cancer, according to CNN.
A national survey conducted by the German Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ) revealed as many as 24 percent of young girls in Cameroon — and up to 53 percent in the southeast Littoral province — disclosed they had undergone breast ironing.
While conducting a 2005 survey on rape and incest in Cameroon, the GTZ had uncovered the phenomenon of breast ironing. The hidden practice gained popularity, as early as the 1930’s, when Cameroonians migrated from rural homes to cities in search of jobs.
Most Cameroon mothers, who had performed breast ironing, emphasized their motive was not to intentionally cause pain on their daughters but to protect them from unwanted teenage pregnancy and sexual transmitted diseases.
“So long as it will not kill the girl, I will prefer the breasts to be deformed and have her go through her education without an unwanted pregnancy or deadly HIV virus,” said a mother to IPS.
“Breast ironing is not a new thing. I am happy I protected my daughter. I could not stand the thought of boys spoiling her with sex before she completed school,” another woman explained to BBC.
“Unfortunately, television is encouraging all sorts of sexual immorality in our children,” she lamented.
Amidst the growing concern of HIV infection and increasing number of teenage pregnancies in Cameroon, GTZ reports that one-third of the 20 to 30 percent of girls with unwanted pregnancies are between 13 and 25 years of age, and more than half of them became pregnant after their first sexual experience.
The IRIN reports an unnamed mother admitting that breast ironing is “not a good solution. I did it to my first two daughters out of ignorance, but what must I do with the third one?”
In 2006, an NGO called Network of Aunties Association (RENTA) was started and led a national campaign against breast ironing. The local women organization seeks to expose the dangers of breast ironing and hopes to change attitudes. Comprising of members, who have personally suffered from the harmful effects of traditional practice, RENTA has recruited and trained more than 6,000 volunteers — known as “Aunties” — to communicate and share about sex-education to Cameroonian girls and boys.
RENTA has produced several radio and television spots highlighting the risks of breast ironing as well as disseminating pamphlets to dissuade women from inflicting the painful practice on young girls.
One of the advertisements said, “Massaging the breasts of young girls is very dangerous. This is harmful to health… Do not force them to disappear or appear—allow them to grow naturally.”
Additionally, with the assistance of psychological counseling and community support, RENATA Aunties has been able to boost the empowerment of Cameroon women by emphasizing the importance of teaching sex education.
In the words of Konda Delphine, a blogger for a Safe World for Women, it’s time to “iron the injustice and not the breast.”
– Flora Khoo