YAOUNDE, Cameroon -With tears in her eyes, 18 year-old Cameroonian Terisia Techu describes an extraordinarily painful procedure that marked her every morning as a nine year-old child. Each day before school, she says, her mother would take a burning hot pestle directly from the fire and push it into her breasts. One morning the pestle was so hot it left a burn mark.
Her mother, Grace, denies the burn incident but does animatedly describe the hot pestle strategy she used on her daughter. The goal of such a barbaric practice? To make Terisia less attractive and desirable to boys, thus preventing early pregnancy, rape and exposure to HIV.
Sadly, Terisia’s experience is far from unique. Local health activists estimate that a fourth of Cameroon’s female population has been subjected to the practice of “breast ironing”- generally at the hands of their mothers.
Strategies for carrying out the practice range from mothers massaging hot grinding-stones into adolescent girls’ chests to pounding developing breast tissue with heated plantain peels to rubbing kerosene or medicinal herbs in. Some mothers use heated coconut shells to flatten their daughters’ breasts.
In addition to the often intense pain and emotional stress involved in the practice, there are a number of other possible health consequences: abscesses, infection, deformation, lactation problems, cysts and possible links to breast cancer.
And though the horrifying practice is rarely spoken about in public, in private mothers stand by it – some saying they do it out of love.
Now 29 year-old Elizabeth Mbu, whose mother kneaded her developing breasts with a fire hot stone multiple times a week when she was 11, confirms that the practice was “really painful” causing her tears each session and permanent damage. At the time, she “didn’t understand what was going on” but now conveys that mothers think the practice is normal because “it prevents the girl getting pregnant early and dropping out of school, or being raped.”
Mbu is now a member of Came Women and Girls Development Organization, which advocates against breast ironing. She identifies that when mothers “see their girl growing breasts, they think they will attract boys – they are protecting their girls” – and is working to change such a damaging perception.
Yet such a perception still reigns. Part of the equation is the widespread phenomenon of unwanted pregnancies. An estimated 30% of women and girls have unwanted pregnancies – often at very early ages. Dr. Serges Moukam, an OBGYN in the capital city of Douala, says “it’s very rare to see a 13-year-old girl who is still a virgin.”
And indeed, Terisia did become pregnant at age 15. She hates the practice of breast ironing, thinks it’s ineffective and wishes her mother had taught her about sex and pregnancy prevention instead. Yet her mother maintains that were it not for the breast ironing, Terisia would have become pregnant at an even younger age. Her mother has continued the horrifying practice with her other daughters.
Since a nonprofit’s campaign on the issue in 2006, the practice has garnered international attention. The U.S. State Department has included breast ironing in its annual reports on human rights abroad. In its 2010 human rights report on Cameroon, the state department cited news reports and said breast ironing “victimized numerous girls in the country” and occasionally “resulted in burns, deformities, and psychological problems.”
The UN has also identified it as one of the “five forgotten crimes against women.” It estimates some 3.8 million teenagers are affected worldwide.
– Kelley Calkins
Sources: The Guardian, The Independent
Photo: CBS News