ABOUT BREAST IRONING
ABOUT BREAST IRONING
When I just got in to secondary school that was in the early eighties I heard some few girls talking about using objects like a wooden spatula, placed over hot flames to massage their breast to prevent them from growing big. I never took them seriously; I guess I considered it a faux pas, not until recently that the prevalence of breast ironing in Cameroon has become a lime- light issue due to the fact that it is a harmful ritual imposed on the nation’s pre-pubescent women. Local non- governmental Organisations are trying to call attention to this practice and stop it.
Breast ironing, known as a form of mutilation is another weird practiced whereby pubescent girls breasts are flatten. This involves pounding and massaging the developing breasts of young girls from about eight years with hot objects to try to make them disappear.
The objects used are wooden tools like pestles and spatulas, grinding stone, oranges, banana, coconut shells and belts. These heated objects and breast band are used to press or beat down the forming breasts.
The practice performed usually by mothers chiefly in urban areas than villages is believed to be an efficient means of delaying pregnancy; by “removing” signs of puberty, these girls are thought to no-longer appear sexually attractive to men. Hence, it helps prevent rape, early marriage and some mothers are equally worried that their daughters’ budding breast would expose them to the risk of sexual harassment.
While there is little research on the health effects of the practice, it is considered that the practice can cause tissue damage in addition to the pain of the ironing process. Other possible side effects include breast infections, malformed breast and the possible complete eradication of one or two breast. Even so, the practice can inhibit or prevent successful breast feeding.
According to a BBC report of June 23, 2006 titled – Cameroon Girls Battle ‘Breast Ironing’ by Randy Joe Sa’ah, statistic show that 26% of Cameroonian girls at puberty undergo it, as many mothers believe it protects their daughters from the sexual advances of boys and men who think children are ripe for sex once their breasts begin to grow. The most widely used instrument to flatten the breast is a wooden pestle, used for pounding tubers in the kitchen. Heated bananas and coconut shells are also used.
Many mothers have no regrets about ironing their daughter's breasts. "Breast ironing is not a new thing. Some women hold they are happy they protected their daughters. To them they could not stand the thought of boys spoiling her with sex before she completed school," one woman explained. "Unfortunately, television is encouraging all sorts of sexual immorality in our children."
Another report by CRIN – Children’s Right Information Network of July 13, 2006 captioned – Millions of Cameroonian Girls Suffer ‘breast ironing’ - “Breast ironing” – the use of hard or heated objects or other substances to try to stunt breast growth in girls – is a traditional practice in West Africa, expert say. A new survey has revealed it is shockingly widespread in Cameroon, where one in four teenagers is subjected to the traumatic process relatives, often hoping to lessen their sexual attractiveness.
Breast ironing is an age-old practice in Cameroon, as well as in many other countries in West and Central Africa, including Chad, Togo, Benin, Guinea – Conakry, just to name a few, “ said Flavien Ndonko, an Anthropologist and local representative of German Development Agency GTZ, which sponsored the survey.
“If society has been silent about it up to now is because, like other harmful practices done to women such as female genital mutilation, it was thought to be good for the girl” said Ndonko. “Even the victims themselves thought it was good for them.”
However, the practice has many side effects, including severe pain and abscesses, infections, breast cancer, and even the complete disappearance of one or both breasts.
The survey of more than 5,000 girls and women aged between 10 and 82 from throughout Cameroon, published last month, estimated that 4 million women in the central African country have suffered the process.
Another report captioned - Women in Africa Bear a Painful Tradition by Roxy Varza, Assistant Editor states that the practice, which was initially thought to improve a mother’s breast-milk, is now inflicted upon 24% of all Cameroonian women as young as the age of nine. While the practice is commonly performed by family members, 58% of the time by the mother, these young and naïve girls buy into its reasoning and often continue inflicting the practice upon their own bodies.
Aside from breast ironing being extremely painful, there are a serious number of physical and mental health complications that can ensue: the most serious include an elevated cancer risk, the inability to produce breast-milk, and psychological problems; many girls grow so fearful of their families that they flee their homes. If pounding is involved, related heart problems can also ensue. Despite the 42% of women touched by this practice who believe their breasts to have developed normally, a good 18% believe their breasts to have become prematurely “saggy” or deformed. Others suffer from infections, cysts, or lesions, which often lead to cancer as early as the age of 25.
Breast ironing affects women in all 10 of Cameroon’s provinces, crossing ethnic and religious boundaries. The practice is most prevalent in the Littoral province (53%), which houses Cameroon’s largest city of Douala; numbers are generally higher in urban areas, where sexual advances are more common. Possibly due to the differences in attire, breast ironing is less common in the nation’s north (7%), where the population is primarily Muslim. However, regardless of location, religion, or ethnicity, the risk of undergoing breast ironing doubles amongst girls who show signs of puberty before the age of nine.
Unlike other many other African nations, Cameroon enjoys general political stability, has a high-ranking educational system and one of the highest literacy rates in Africa (79% as of 2003). While teen pregnancy rates have declined since 1996, with 60% of all teens experiencing one or more pregnancies, to 20% in 2003, numbers are still high and have obviously not been reduced by the breast ironing. The rationale behind breast ironing, which is to protect young girls from sexual advances, conflicts with the reality that these girls can still become pregnant. The 5,661 women between the ages of 9 and 82, who were touched by breast ironing in 2005, sheds light upon a desperate need for sex education in a country where the topic is still very taboo.
Despite the problems with breast ironing, it has not yet been banned by authorities. While victims do have protection under law, very few cases are taken to court. If it is concluded that damage has been done to the victim, the responsible party can face up to 3 years in prison. Victims, however, are often too young and very unlikely to report their family members.