breast ironing in cameroon: girls abused “for their own good”
Young girls in the West feel pressure to have large breasts, but in the West African nation of Cameroon, girls on the cusp of puberty are having their breasts ironed by family members to stop them developing. Breast ironing has emerged as a result of victim blaming and poor sex education in the country. Unlike other abuses against women, such as female genital mutilation and foot binding, the practice is done with the intent to protect girls’ interests. It is mainly used in the hope to combat developing girls being raped, becoming pregnant from premarital sex, or to ensure girls complete school – all by attempting to minimise male attention.
Breast ironing is not a Cameroonian tradition but rather, a treatment – it is not exercised on all daughters in a family, nor is it always continued by those who have undergone it. It is simple in method but complex in its aftermath. Mothers, grandmothers and aunts pin girls down and rub their budding breasts with objects like grinding stones or pestles, which have been pulled out of fireplaces, in an attempt to stunt growth. It is often done with secrecy to avoid increasing social stigma over the practice. The sessions can last upwards of 10 to 15 minutes and may be repeated on an ongoing basis for months. There is no forewarning to the child as to what is involved or what is happening, with questions often receiving answers to the effect of ‘you are growing breasts and you are still a child’. There are obvious physical side effects, such as burns, scarring, infection, plus lifelong psychological traumas, including the internalisation of blame.
There are more than 200 ethnic groups of Cameroonians and despite an array of cultural differences, all have been found to practice breast ironing. It is practiced by all, regardless of socioeconomic or religious background, with the aim of protecting their girls. Similar practices, such as breast binding, sweep across Western and Central Africa and have been reported in Nigeria, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Republic of Guinea, Chad, Kenya and Zimbabwe.
German NGO GIZ estimates 3.8 million girls across West and Central Africa could suffer breast ironing in the future, with other studies showing one in four Cameroonian girls have experienced it firsthand. And as it remains in Cameroonians’ lives when emigrating, breast ironing has found its way across the globe. Despite mainstream media coverage by networks like the United Kingdom’s BBC and America’s CNN, breast ironing remains on the periphery of Western societies. Breast ironing is now under the microscope in Britain though, as police held a conference in England recently to learn how to tackle the issue facing girls in the Cameroonian diaspora.
Breast ironing victim Terisia Techu told CNN she wished her mother had discussed sexuality and contraceptives more openly with her rather than taking what she considered preventative measures into her own hands. Like 60% of Cameroonian teens, Terisia became pregnant at the age of 15, despite undergoing breast ironing. According to Cameroonian agency Gender Empowerment, the country has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa at 79%, plus a well-regarded education system, but discussing sex remains taboo. Hope of the practice being left behind in favour of better sex education is echoed by doctors and activists, and while family members still insist it is a valid option to ensure their girls are safe, breast ironing is becoming more and more frowned upon in Cameroonian communities, with campaigns being launched to stop it.
A television advertising campaign was headed by the Association of Aunties (RENATA) in 2006 to stop the practice, urging families to ‘not force them to disappear or appear [but] allow them to grow naturally’. Cameroonian grassroots women’s group Gender Danger is also acting on the issue and aims to have it discussed openly in the hopes to abolish the practice altogether.
At present, Cameroonian law provides protection for victims if reported within the first few months. Laws allow jail time of up to three years for the perpetrator if the girl’s breast tissue is found to be damaged by a medical doctor. Despite this, the practice itself has not yet been outlawed, even though the country has ratified multiple United Nations conventions on improving the status of women, bodily integrity and torture.