CAMEROON: Mama Hates My Sprouting Breasts
Breast ironing, a violent attempt to prevent the sexual development of adolescent girls, has scarred the bodies and psyches of millions of girls in Cameroon. Chi Yvonne Leina reports.
In the privacy of homes, behind closed kitchen and bedroom doors, pubescent girls in Cameroon are being tortured by their own mothers. Using objects like grinding stones, mortar pestles, coconut shells, or hammers heated over hot coal, mothers massage their daughters' developing breasts to destroy any indication of emerging womanhood. War has been waged against womankind. Genitals are mutilated; breasts flattened; bodies battered; hair cut off for rituals; minds deprived of education.
The breast, a feminine symbol and the pride of womanhood, has become a target. The urge to protect their daughters from rape and premarital pregnancy has pushed mothers in Cameroon to deform the breasts of their daughters.
When I met Lindsay, I noticed a deformity and suspected she must have “been there.” But like many victims of breast ironing, she didn’t want to talk about it. Most victims never report it, and many claim never to have heard about the practice.
I continued visiting her in her tailoring workshop, and I told her about my own fight with my grandma, which freed me from being a victim of breast ironing, and about my cousin who dropped out of school as a result of this practice. When I asked her about it again, she nodded with her eyes fixed on her toes, and she opened up to me about her experience at the age of 11.
When Lindsay got her first period, she was so frightened she took to her heels to tell her mama to take her to the health center. “I was so sure I had been wounded by a nail hanging out of the bench on which I sat in class that day,” she told me. “Mama pulled me to the bathroom and asked me to show her the wound. When I did, she asked me if any boy had ‘touched me’ and I said no. Holding her ear with her left hand and her waist with the right, she gave me a fierce warning, telling me if any man or boy touched me, from that day onwards, I would be pregnant, and that will be the end of my education and the family would disown me. She gave me water to bathe and later brought a huge chunk of toilet tissue for me to put in my pants.”
Lindsay continued: “The next day she called me into the kitchen and examined my chest while shaking her head. She asked me to lie down on the floor while she used a hot stone to press my breasts which had just begun sprouting. She instructed me never to tell anyone about what she was doing. The practice continued for over a year. Unfortunately for mama when I turned 12 my breasts defied her attempts to suppress their growth and developed, though the right one is visibly much smaller than the left and there are black marks all over the area from burns I incurred during the process.”
According to statistics from the United Nations Population Fund, one out of every four girls in Cameroon is a victim of breast ironing. That’s 3.8 million girls. The practice is most prevalent in the Christian and animist south of the country, where in some regions, half of the female population is subject to breast ironing. The damaging effects of this form of body mutilation by far outweigh any reasoning behind the practice. Fertilized by the culture of silence, breast ironing has made it right up to this age of scientific advancement. Many women have seen the benefits of educating their girl children. They are ready to do anything to prevent their daughters from teenage pregnancy and early marriage that would bring an end to their daughters' education. This mutilation has proven to be futile when it comes to deterring teenage sexual activity and many of the girls still end up disfigured with teenage pregnancies.
Breast ironing can be a source of excruciating pain and violates a young girl’s physical integrity. A 25-year-old victim says she feels embarrassed each time she is naked amongst her peers because her breast tissues are worn out like those of an old woman. “The thing is very much alive everywhere, yet no one talks about it because it is done behind closed doors and kept as a secret between mothers and daughters. Not even the fathers are usually aware of these acts," she says.
Another victim of breast ironing, now an English teacher, says she grew up with a feeling of guilt about the sprouting of her breasts which happened at the early age of 10. "Despite the ironing, pressing, and massaging with hot kitchen utensils, my breasts refused to flatten, making me an object of scorn amongst my mates whose chests were still flat” she says.
Medical experts say the developing tissues in the breasts are expanded and destroyed by heat during the ironing. Research by the United Nations Population Fund reveals that breast ironing exposes girls to numerous health problems such as abscesses, cysts, itching, and discharge of milk. There can be permanent damage to milk ducts, infection, and dissymmetry of the breasts, cancer, breast infections, severe fever, tissue damage, and even the complete disappearance of one or both breasts. Victims end up with marks, wrinkles, and black spots on their breasts.
One victim says she developed breast cancer as a result of the mutilation and ended up losing one of her breasts in a surgery. Her mother initially saw the cancer as a spell and resorted to more intense ironing sessions using a knife heated on a fire to press them.
Like female genital mutilation, breast ironing violates the fundamental rights of women and young girls—the right to health, physical integrity, and freedom from torture. Many mothers have preferred to destroy their daughters’ breasts than to face the embarrassment of talking about sex with the girls. As a result, the rate of premarital pregnancy is on the rise in Cameroon (making up 30% of pregnancies according to local health care workers) due to lack of sexual education.
Worried and otherwise well–intentioned mothers have intensified the war against teenage sex by ironing, massaging, and pounding their breast to flatten them. “So long as it will not kill the girl, I will prefer the breast to be deformed and have her go through her education without an unwanted pregnancy or the deadly HIV virus," states one of the mothers. Most of the mothers say their intent is not to inflict pain on their daughters but to protect them from the taboo of teenage pregnancy. Where the mothers cannot stand the sight of their daughters in pain, there are often local women who serve as professional breast flatteners who exchange their services for palm oil and wood. . . .