CAMEROON: Mama Hates My Sprouting Breasts
A recent nationwide campaign by the Network of Aunties Association, (RENATA), a nongovernmental organization led by breast ironing victims, involved radio and TV spots which discouraged women from inflicting breast ironing on their daughters. Much still needs to be done to kill the culture of silence; for so long as there is silence, no one can ever tell the full extent of harm done to little girls in the secrecy of homes. According to gender consultant Dr. Awa Magdalene these practices rob girls of the self confidence they need to assert themselves in society later on in life. A dual enemy to women’s emancipation, breast ironing not only inflicts pain, but prevents women from accepting their bodies as normal human beings.
These pubescent girls are children and ought to benefit from children’s rights. Cameroon signed the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which was put in place in September 1990. According to Article 19 of the convention,"States parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social, and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse while in the care of parents(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child."
As stated by the terms of this convention, which Cameroon ratified in 1993, the government has a legal responsibility to protect these girls from the injury and abuse of breast ironing.
The perpetrators of this act are not in hiding. They can be found at any time, but nothing is ever done to them. Technically, victims of breast ironing are protected under national laws as well if it is medically proven that the breast has been damaged and if the case is reported within a few months of the damage. Unfortunately, no girl has ever been bold enough to report her mother to a court of law.
Blessing Nabila, a final year law student of the University of Yaoundé, says she finds no use of reporting such a matter to the court because matters concerning women’s rights are often handled with nonchalance in Cameroonian courts, except for a few cases handled by some female lawyers who are devoted to the cause.
The Preamble of the Constitution of the Republic of Cameroon states, “human beings, without distinction of race, religion, belief, possess inalienable and sacred rights,” and Article 1(2) calls for equality of all citizens before the law. However, women and girls have unequal status in all spheres of life, and discriminatory administrative policies, practices, laws, cultural beliefs, and attitudes continue to curb women’s enjoyment of human rights.
The more educated and exposed a woman is, the less likely she is to be convinced that such a brutal act as breast ironing can actually be a solution to the problem of teenage sex. Educated women understand the need for sex education and will rather counsel their girl children about their sexuality rather than mutilate their bodies.
Unfortunately, girls’ education is yet to hit acceptable standards in the country. Ironically, breast ironing, which many mothers believe will help ensure their daughters’ education, has accounted for a good number of school dropouts amongst teenage girls. The psychological trauma that accompanies the act usually makes it difficult for the girls to concentrate in school.
“I felt like an outcast amongst other girls,” confesses Aline, a victim of breast ironing. “I knew many of my friends whose mothers did not press their breasts; it made me feel sad, I spent my whole days in class thinking about what grandma will do to me after school and so could not study. I ended up failing my exams and was dismissed for extremely poor academic performance.”
At the 2000 United Nations Millennium summit, countries worldwide agreed to focus development plans on eight goals. One of the goals is to eradicate gender disparities at all levels of education by 2015 .This is a big challenge for sub-Saharan African countries like Cameroon. Though there has been remarkable progress at the primary level of education, the secondary level still presents a veritable challenge.
According to a 2003 UN report, the female-to-male ratio in school enrollment stands at about 0.80 at the secondary level and 0.45 at the tertiary level. This challenge is fueled by breast ironing, in regions where the practice is prevalent, and by early marriages in other regions. Some families in Cameroon prefer to spend their resources on educating male children while keeping the girls at home for domestic chores. Educating the girl child will help eradicate barbaric acts like breast ironing in Cameroon. If young girls are encouraged to break the silence and expose the secret, it will be difficult for this culture to thrive.
Think of a woman whose vagina is mutilated at the age of 9, whose breasts were ironed at the age of 10, and who dropped out of school at the age of 12 due to psychological trauma from these practices, who was then forced into marriage at the age of 15, became a mother of six by age 23, was widowed at 30, and was forced to undergo dehumanizing widowhood rituals. This woman will go through life regretting that she was born a woman, and will never rejoice at the birth of a female in her family again.
Any community which refuses to release its women from the bonds of noxious cultural practices bars the way to development. The writing on the wall is clear; nations which have taken the forefront in women’s emancipation are today enjoying the bliss of feminine initiatives. It is time for Cameroon to join these nations.